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Ian Adamson - Running, evolution, footwear & injury

Ian Adamson


Running, evolution, footwear and injury by Ian Adamson from Healthy Running

(Ian Adamson is 7x World Champion, 3x World Record Holder, X-Games Gold Medalist, President International Obstacle Racing Federation, former editor at Winning Magazine, writer for Triathlete, Inside Triathlon, Competitor and senior contributor to Adventure Sports (since 1996). He is the CEO of Healthy Running, who specialise in providing CECs, CEUs and CMEs for medical and fitness professionals.


Think back to your first triathlon. Before you started training, you probably talked to friends with experience, joined a training group, or asked the local store for more information. You might have read some magazines or books, or browsed information on-line. For some reason, though, people don’t seek lessons for running since they believe that their strength and form is just dandy.


Here’s the thing: most runners in our population will get injured if they run regularly over a prolonged period of time. Studies show that the majority of runners – somewhere between 20 and 80 percent – will get injured in any given year1. This is a pretty big risk for any activity and, I’m guessing, most people would not rock climb, ski or catch a plane if they were told that there was a 50 percent chance that they would suffer injury.


Paradoxically, most (sensible) people pursue knowledge and training before attempting a skill that involves the possibility of injury, but not for running. Consider scaling a 6,000 meter peak, parachuting out of an airplane or learning how to swim for the first time. Lessons, check. Practice, check. Proper equipment, check.


Fortunately, as triathletes, we are students of technique and love our equipment and technology. Successful athletes work on their form on the bike, in the pool and many transfer this to the run. Yet running injuries are still prevalent, which begs the question, why?


Humans are extraordinarily good distance runners and have done so (without footwear) for virtually the entire length of human evolution2. As you might imagine, injured runners did not survive, so the emergence of running injuries is a relatively new phenomenon. The current body of evidence in science indicates running form and footwear as primary causes injury. Over the last few years it has become apparent that most runners in affluent populations (using a “western gait” style), run with a technique that results in high loading rates. High loading rates are believed to increase risk of injury.


One way to describe the western gait is habitually shod running3. Populations that do this are a minority of the human population, by some estimates about one in seven humans on the planet. In other words, the one billion who have enough money to buy running shoes.


In fact, modern running shoes, those with midsole cushioning, appeared in the 1960s, while running as a recreation became popular in the 1970s. Industry estimates show there are around 60 million regular runners in affluent countries (those who run at least three miles, three times per week), or about 10 percent of the population. A reasonable approximation for the number of recreational runners in the current human population is 10 percent of 1 billion, or 100 million.


It is clear that most humans don’t run like us wealthy western folk (western hemisphere that is, not cowboys), nor do they suffer the same types or rates of injury. One important factor for western runners is our lifestyle. Humans evolved to spend eight to twelve hours a day performing functional movements. That is, standing, walking, carrying, lifting and generally being active. It is only since the industrial revolution that some humans became sedentary, which has lead to problems, including a significant reduction in longevity4. Today the average number of hours of daily activity for our population is closer to 30 minutes, with most of our time sitting. Anthropologists have strong evidence that there has been more than five million years of bipedal evolution leading to humans (the last 200,000 years). Time score: evolution 5,000,000, modern lifestyle 250, modern running shoes 40.


Next article: Why this is relevant to how you run.




1.       van Gent et al, Incidence and determinants of lower extremity running injuries in long distance runners: a systematic review, Br J Sports Med 2007:41

2.       Dennis M. Bramble & Daniel E. Lieberman, Endurance running and the evolution of Homo, Nature 2004:432

3.       Lieberman et al, Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners, Nature 2010:463

4.       Veerman et al, Television viewing time and reduced life expectancy: a life table analysis, Br J Sports Med 2012:46



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