The sneakers of discord

A native of Switzerland, Blaise Dubois was seven years old when he got hooked on running. A passion that led him to athletics in high school, in Quebec, then in the Laval University team for six seasons.

When I graduated in 1998, I was a varsity runner and I wore the same shoes as everyone else. Big shoes, he explains.

Being a physiotherapist, I just wondered a few more questions. What is the difference in height in an espadrille for? What are new technologies used for? Are there any studies that show it works?

Runners at the New York City Marathon in 1998.Photo : Getty Images / STAN HONDA

Back in the day, runners used to train in chunky sneakers, but still had the habit of putting on light, thin-soled shoes on race day, shoes. racers, for performance reasons. At the beginning of his practice, Dubois began to recommend these shoes to patients struggling with certain pathologies, but also to high level runners..

Ultimately, I started prescribing minimalist shoes 20 years ago, even though the word minimalist did not yet exist in the vocabulary of shoe salespeople. I recommended gradually increasing their running time with simpler shoes to increase the stress level on the different muscle tissues and make them more robust. In short, to strengthen the feet.

At the time, good scientific literature on shoe types was almost non-existent. But some scientific theories were beginning to upset the young physiotherapist. There were hints of reflection. We realized that contrary to what we believed, the cushioning in the shoes did not reduce the stress on the skeleton. When you put on cushioning, the body runs differently.

Two recent pairs of racer type shoes.Photo: Radio-Canada / Olivia Laperrière-Roy

In 2008, Australian researcher Craig Richard detailed in a scientific review published in the British Journal of Sports Medecine that there is absolutely no evidence that modern running shoes reduce the risk of injury.

The following year, physiologist Joseph Knapik published the results of a first large study of American military personnel to determine whether recommending running shoes based on the shape of the foot had an effect on reducing injuries. For decades, runners have been recommended to use shoes to control the pronation of their feet and thus prevent the foot from sagging in or out on contact with the ground.

The result of the study: Regardless of the shape of the foot, running in shoes that are neutral or have anti-pronators does not seem to make any difference in preventing injury.

For Dubois, this is confirmation that running shoe sales practices must change. That the new technologies offered for decades by the major sports equipment manufacturers, that’s hogwash. A position that he began to defend on his La Clinique Du Coureur blog and, quickly, in panels around the world.

If Knapik’s studies pique the curiosity of the scientific community, in 2009, it is rather a book, Born to Run (Born to run), which is all the rage among amateur runners. Often injured recreational runner, journalist Christopher McDougall tells over the pages of his transformation into an ultramarathoner by relearning to run barefoot. The journalist is on the trail of a hidden tribe, the Tarahumaras, living far from civilization in the mountains, Mexico.

A man in traditional dress poses: a sweater with loose sleeves, a neck scarf, a skirt and sandals.

A young Tarahumara in the village of Corareachi, in the Barrancas del Cobre, Mexico.Photo : Getty Images

The tale ends with an 80-kilometer race through the Western Sierra Madre pitting top Tarahumara runners against elite American runners, including ultramarathon champion Scott Jurek. The Tarahumara have no shoes. On rocky, hot or snowy ground, they are content with very thin sandals laced to their feet. This does not prevent one of them, Arnolfo Quintare, from crossing the finish line in front of the invincible Jurek.

McDougall sprinkles the story with science, including detailing the work of three American biologists who believe humans evolved millions of years ago specifically to run long distances.

Achilles tendons, springs in the feet, stabilizing ligament of the neck, exceptional ability to sweat, man has a series of physiological characteristics that the chimpanzee, from which he derives, does not have. Characteristics that seem to be useful for a specific activity: endurance racing.

How could running slowly for long serve Homo, surrounded by faster and more powerful four-legged predators?

The hypothesis of David Carrier and Dennis Bramble, of the University of Utah, and Daniel Lieberman, of the Harvard University, is this: millions of years ago, long before the invention of the bow with arrows, Homo erectus adopted the hunt to exhaustion. As a group, our ancestors would stalk and track faster running mammals for tens, if not hundreds of kilometers, until their prey collapsed from fatigue and heat.

The sandals of a Tarahumara, made from a tire and leather.

The sandals of a Tarahumara, made from a tire and leather.Photo : iStock / Robert Ingelhart

Between the exploits of the Tarahumara and the long hunting trips of Homo erectus, the reading of Born to Run made you want one thing: throw away your sneakers and go for a run barefoot. Without necessarily wanting to, Christopher McDougall had just created in the minds of many what the biologist Daniel Lieberman calls today the myth of the athletic savage.

This idea that humans who haven’t been contaminated by civilization are these amazing ultra-marathoners who can run really long distances. It’s not true, but it’s what people want to hear.

A quote from:Daniel Lieberman
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