Do You Wear High Heels?

After racing a cumulative 4,130 miles in marathons and ultramarathons, you’d think my feet would be messed up, but actually they’re quite beautiful, don’t you think?

Whose feet are these?

Just kidding.  Those feet belong to my friend Cindy Koch.  My feet are almost as beautiful, but I don’t wear high heels.

To the contrary, my wardrobe consists entirely of “zero drop” footwear, meaning shoes where there is zero difference between the height of the sole in front and in back.  Zero drop shoes have no heels, they’re flat.

I run in Inov-8 minimalist style road and trail shoes, generally the lightest-weight versions available, over distances ranging from one mile to one-hundred plus.

INOV-8 roadXtreme-138
INOV-8 roadXtreme-138
INOV-8 TrailRoc-150
INOV-8 TrailRoc-150

At work, I wear dress shoes made by Vivobarefoot.  They have a thin rubber sole and a large toe box, but no heel or arch.  My wife thinks they look odd (I agree) but I haven’t been fired for wearing them.

Black leather dress shoes by Vivobarefoot
Black leather dress shoes by Vivobarefoot

After throwing away a pair of sandals with arch support and thick cushioned heels, I’ve started walking and running in LUNA Sandals and am enjoying them immensely (no, those aren’t Cindy’s feet).

Author's feet in LUNA Sandals
Author’s feet in LUNA Sandals

My shoes are considered “minimalist,” meaning that they offer little in the way of structure, support, or cushion.  I started running in minimalist shoes after reading Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run.

Inspired by the book, I conducted a simple experiment — and I recommend it for anyone who’s questioning their current footgear.

Pick a trail that’s not too rocky and run around in your shoes.  Then take off your shoes and run barefoot for a couple hundred yards — do you notice any difference?  Then put your shoes back on and run — what do you feel now?

When I tried this, the experience was very powerful.  Without shoes, I felt like for the first time in my life I understood how to run.  Instead of slamming the ground with my heels, I found myself placing the balls of my feet on the ground, paying attention to the texture of the path and the location of gravel and rocks.  The sensation of pounding vanished.  Instead, my focus shifted to picking up my knees, using legs and feet as levers, and engaging the core.

Then, when I put my shoes back on, the lightbulb went off again.  I could no longer feel the ground.

I decided on the spot to go 100% minimalist.  If it meant less running while I got used to using different muscles, so be it.  And it did take me about two years to fully transition.  Along the way I struggled with very sore calves and a couple of bouts of plantar fasciitis, and once I strained the achilles tendon and had to take two months off.  But that was four years ago. Since then, I haven’t had an injury that took more than a week to heal.  And I love the sensation of running naturally.

The problems with heels, at least for some of us, is that by tilting the body forward, they transfer mechanical load from the calves to the shins.  As a young man, I suffered from chronic compartment syndrome, a form of severe shin splints, which eventually required surgery.  I was running in conventional running shoes at the time with very large cushioned heels (New Balance 990), and these shoes evidently put too much pressure on my shin muscles, which would swell and go numb after about ten minutes of running.

An interesting study found that people with chronic compartment syndrome in their shins can reduce symptoms and avoid surgery by switching to minimalist shoes which encourage striking the ground with the forefoot, rather than the heel. The sample size in this study was small, and there wasn’t a control group, so don’t take it as gospel.  But it sure makes sense to me.  After I made the switch, my shins were happy, but my calves were quite sore, until they got used to doing their fair share of the work.

That’s my experience.  But I’m not going to tell anyone else what kind of shoes to wear, because we’re all different.

Life is an experiment of one.

— George Sheehan

I thought maybe I should warn Cindy about the perils of high heels.  But she seems to be doing just fine.  Earlier this year she ran in the Badwater Salton Sea 81-mile ultramarathon.  Here’s a picture of her running in a 24-hour race.  All smiles.  Nice work, Cindy!

Cindy Koch running in the 2015 Pacific Rim 24-hour race
Cindy Koch running in the 2015 Pacific Rim 24-hour race
Do You Wear High Heels?

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