17 May 2012

Parallels Between a 5 Fingered Running Revolution and Aid

Nicholas Thompson writes about new trends in running and former marathoner and super coach Alberto Salazar. Salazar has become an important figure in the distance running world by focusing on the technical aspects of the sport. An extensive article in the New Yorker in 2010 looked at the obsession of Salazar and his discovery that the elite African runners used a full finishing stride when running longer distances; the complete opposite of the energy-saving short recovery that was being taught at the time. The training of Dathan Ritzenhein by Salazar is interwoven into the larger story about the changing face of distance running.

We are also in the midst of a running revolution thanks to Chris McDougall’s Born to Run. If you see people running or walking around in the five finger shoes that look like alien feet, McDougall deserves a lot of the credit. However, Thompson urges some caution about the new trend.
But there’s a danger. Our ancestors may have run barefoot, but they didn’t do it on asphalt and concrete. They didn’t do it on roads caked with broken glass. They also didn’t have potato chips and soda, or bodies shaped by days spent in offices. Running is an extremely complex physical motion. Changing your shoes might help, but the way stress is distributed across your body depends a great deal, too, on how your hold your head, and even how you swing your arms. Ultimately, we don’t really know whether the movement spurred by “Born to Run” will make us more or less hurt. My guess is that, ten years from now, we’ll see it as a useful corrective. Runners will spend much more time thinking about their form, and there will be lines of well-tested and well-designed thin shoes. But most of us, particularly those of who live in cities, will be training in relatively thick shoes. When Salazar started adjusting Ritzenhein’s form, he came down with stress fractures in his metatarsals. He’s been battling injuries since.
The caveats from Thompson are lessons that can be applied to development. The most important being the importance of understanding the present context and what contributed to the status quo. In some cases, a radical change, as the case is made by McDougall, can lead to some positive outcomes. He and other runners who now apply the techniques tell stories of avoiding injuries and experiencing better overall health.

McDougall's basic argument is that early man traveled barefoot which is more conducive to a running style where the front of the food strikes first, rather than the heel. Big padded sneakers reverse this style of running. A 2010 study in Nature confirms it to be the case when comparing the way people run with and without shoes. The conclusion by McDougall is to return back to the original design. Despite the claims, adequate data is hard to find. The US military advises against the use of five fingers running shoes based on the lack of studies.

There are other factors to consider. In the past few thousand years diets have changed, the physical make up of humans has changed, we now run on abrasive surfaces like pavement, most people spend their day seated, obesity is up, we live longer and so on. All these factors matter when understanding the development of the shoe.

The discussion feels much like the larger aid and development debates. New solutions present themselves as being able to create transformative change. Then fad soon meets reality. Microfinance may be making a small difference, but it is not bringing an end to poverty. One Laptop Per Child showed no significant improvement in the education of students in Peru and a new J-PAL study is buzzing about because it gives evidence to the failure of clean cookstoves.

Charles Kenny commented yesterday on technical solutions that do work and should be used, but end up failing.
[T]wo things are clear: first, the presumption should remain that people are smarter about what works for them than you are –at least until you can prove pretty convincingly otherwise. And second, just subsidizing stuff or giving it out for free because you think it must be good for people really doesn’t cut it any more.
A series of behaviors and changes have lead to injuries among runners. In development, a series of behaviors and changes leave over a billion people in extreme poverty. For some people, it will be a simple as putting on a better pair of shoes or accessing credit. Others will require more fundamental changes in their own lives and what is around them. Silver bullet solutions are fun to consider because they provide hope, but the reality is always messier.