Running and Walking Shoes Pt. 1: Intelligent Feet
Years ago, when I was living in San Francisco, I went into a local martial arts supply store to buy a pair of t'ai chi shoes. When I asked the little old Chinese woman behind the counter for a pair, she stepped out from behind the counter, looked down at my old running shoes and said, “I don’t know why you people buy those shoes that make your feet stupid.”
I was so taken by surprise with her candidness and accuracy that my only response was, “Guilty as charged.” She was talking about the fact that most Western shoes are so over-built and have such thick soles that they prevent us from feeling the ground beneath us. When practicing t'ai chi it is crucially important to maintain a very direct contact with the ground in order to feel “rooted” and stable. So, it is mandatory to have very flexible, thin-soled shoes.
An important aspect to keep in mind when practicing Chi Running or Chi Walking is that you’re not just trying to build intelligence in your mind, you’re trying to build intelligence into your movement, which to a surprisingly large degree is informed by the intelligence in your feet. We believe in the power of the feet to help you find true balance in your running and walking technique… in all your movement, in fact. Your feet train your body how to have the best postural alignment. As you work to increase intelligence in your mind, you should also be trying to build intelligence in your feet and your body. You’ll enjoy good flexibility and mobility, and maintain healthy feet, legs and posture for a lifetime.
Like the Chinese shopkeeper said, most of us in the Western world have stupid feet. We have lost our sense of what truly good posture feels like … or looks like. Our shoes have dumbed down the intelligence of our feet by trying to do too much for us.
Your Shoes Can Hurt You
For years now, as a response to the high injury rate of runners, shoe manufacturers have been designing shoes with increasingly thicker heels and mid-soles. But, even though they have tried their best to solve the problem by designing better shoes, the annual rate of running injuries has not dropped. There are now studies showing that the higher heels are creating an earlier and more sustained contact with the ground, increasing impact to the legs, knees and joints. If you want to find a pair of shoes without an elevated heel, you have to go for racing flats which are designed for elite runners who generally have better biomechanics than most recreational runners.
Most walking shoes are also overbuilt and are inhibiting the feet’s ability to educate and inform the body of correct movement.
Our goal with Chi Running and Chi Walking is to educate your feet and your body to move properly again, with a walking or running form that takes the jarring impact out of your movement. As the fluidity in your technique improves you’ll begin to need less of a shoe.
Now, when we talk about needing less of a shoe, we don’t mean that everyone should go out and buy the thinnest shoe they can find. That’s not Gradual Progress and too quick of a transition could create problems in your feet and legs. Here’s a good rule to go by: “Walk or run in a shoe that your current level of ability can safely sustain.”
In Chi Running and Chi Walking we ask you to relax your entire lower leg and NOT push off with your toes. At the end of landing on your foot you pick up your foot without pushing off. This decreases the muscle usage of your whole lower leg.
In Chi Running you land on your mid-foot, with your foot directly under your center of mass, instead of reaching with your leg and heel striking. The Chi Running technique is based on a forward lean from your ankles, allowing gravity to pull you forward. Landing with a midfoot strike eliminates the need for a cushioned heel. As a matter of fact, the overbuilt heels on most shoes are causing more of a heel strike, and hence more injury.
The vast majority of runners today strike with their heels which has now been proven to cause an alarming rate of knee and lower leg injuries. I’m predicting that "mid-foot strike" (MFS) will be the next big buzzword in the running community.
In Chi Walking you land on the front of your heel, gently rolling your foot. We call it the fore-heel roll. Don’t push off with your toes or land on the back of your heel. Find a walking shoe that does not have a built up heel that causes a heel strike.
As you practice Chi Running and Chi Walking you increase your ability to sense your feet and which shoe is best for you. Practice with your current shoes. As you walk and run, notice how your feet feel in your shoes. How heavy are your shoes? Can your foot flex and move comfortably in them? Next time you buy shoes, take plenty of time walking around in the store and notice how much (or how little) you can feel the ground underneath the shoe.
Over time, watch for any changes in the needs of your feet. Do you need less support? …more flexibility? …more width? …a lighter shoe? As you learn to listen to your feet, they’ll be able to guide you into the shoe that is just right for your current needs.
Once you’ve gotten the basics of Chi Running – landing with a mid-foot strike or Chi Walking – using the fore-heel roll you’re ready to incrementally reduce the structure of your shoe.
There has been a remarkable amount of press about running barefoot. Our good friend, Ken Saxton, has been in the papers frequently for running marathons barefoot. I personally prefer finding a great shoe, but the reason why I support the concept is that running barefoot is the single fastest way to find out how good your form really is. Barefoot runners don’t heel strike, because the foot is “educating” the body about how you should make contact with the ground. For most of us, this can be a harsh reality if you take away our shoes.
Rather than running barefoot I run almost entirely in racing flats. They have the least built up heel, the least amount of structure and cushioning. You too will be running in racing flats when your Chi Running technique is such that you always have a soft, mid-foot landing, with no heel strike or toe-off and you can clearly Body Sense the difference.
Again, I prefer walking with protection for my feet. However, eventually your walking shoe should also become much more minimal. It’s a good practice to walk barefoot whenever you can. There are few current walking shoes that I like, unless I’m going for a long strenuous hike with a backpack (then I still like a good hiking shoe). With my current walking form, I have found the best shoes for me are also racing flats for runners. However, you need to practice your walking form, and make sure your feet and body get the support they need until your form has evolved enough to reduce your shoe structure.
In Part 2 of this article, we’ll talk more specifically about recommending shoes, but the most important thing you can do is work on your Chi Walking and Chi Running skills, improve your technique, and improve your Body Sensing skills. You can then find shoes that protect your feet from the rough edges of the world, but allow your feet to do what they are supposed to do…educate your body about the best way to move.