Aside from being a Sport Dietitian, I also have the honor of being a USA Triathlon Level III Elite and Youth and Junior Triathlon Coach. I work with many young triathletes as part of my Kids that TRI team in Colorado and one of the topics that has always intrigued me has been natural running form as it pertains to youth.
While this will not be a long winded blog about the background of running mechanics and the history of running shoes, I will highlight some messages that are important for all young athletes.
I will start by asking you to do your first bit of research and watch kids run barefoot in the park or sand. Note how their bodies react, how their feet are placed on the ground and more importantly, their facial reactions (almost always a smile!). I firmly believe that kids instinctually know how to run at a young age but this changes once we begin to put certain shoes on their feet. Among the hundreds of youth I have worked with on running mechanics, I have noticed a majority have issues in terms of their gait or foot placement. As they navigate their runs in what I term "cadillac" shoes (big cushioning in the heel with a ramp angle from midfoot to heel of 10 millimeters or greater), I see more heel striking, backward body lean, slow cadence and expressions of pain on their faces.
When doing something as simple as having youth run barefoot in grass, it is quite amazing the differences that are seen. There is more of a midfoot strike, forward body lean, smiles on their faces and a higher cadence.
Having said that, could their be an association between the typeof shoes and kids running mechanics?
Whenever possible, I try to progress youth from a normal "cadillac" shoe to a more efficient shoe that will actually promote a more efficient running style. Enter my newest experiment that I have been doing on my 10 year old son for the past few years. He's a very active youth, playing soccer and triathlon and has become quite a fast and efficient runner over time.
When he initially began triathlon, he started in a normal pair of "cadillac" shoes. I found that he wasn't able to implement many of the lessons I was trying to teach with efficient running because the shoe was preventing his brain from telling his foot how to properly land on the ground. More specifically, he could not overcome the high ramp angle (and heel) to properly implement a midfoot strike. I was a bit worried that he would continue his heel striking tendencies which may lead to injury so I progressed him to a racing flat shoe (see photo below). This proved a huge success because not only was the ramp angle less but he was finally able to understand what midfoot striking was. More importantly, the shoe was not the limiter anymore.
Photo: left shoe is the "cadillac" shoe; middle is the racing flat and the right is the Newton. We have progressed my son from left to right.
After months of running in the racing flat and perfecting efficient running skills, he showed great progress in his forward lean, midfoot strike and cadence. I then knew it was time for the next phase of his running shoe experiment.
Enter Newton Running Shoes. I remember when they first came out years ago and I wasn't on board at that time, mostly because the education surrounding their shoes was not great. Over the years, I have seen their company take more of a proactive stance and move education to the top of their priority list and with good reason, their shoes are very different than "normal" running shoes. I learned more about the science and technology of the shoes from the great staff at Kompetitive Edge and really began to understand not only why their shoes looked different but more importantly, the science of the functional design as it relates to running mechanics.
As I approach most everything I do, I only progressed my son to a pair of Newton neutral shoes only after 1) I understood the shoe and the science and 2) I knew my son's running efficiency was at a point where Newton's would benefit him the most.
I videotaped my son running on the treadmill with his Newton's and was pleasantly surprised at his efficient running form. Newton's are great shoes for young athletes when their running mechanics are at a certain point of progression but Newton's concept of "Land-Lever-Lift" is a great teaching tool. The shoes themselves actually promote and reinforce proper foot and body placement. Additionally, you can look at the wear on the bottom of the shoe to know if the proper mechanics are being implemented or not.
And the experiment continues. My son's journey into Newton Shoes has just begun and I am excited to continue to teach him but also note how the shoes will reinforce his neuromuscular connection to improving his running form even more.
Oh, and yes, Newton shoes are a bit more expensive but considering the fact that they help teach kids how to run properly and they get at least twice the mileage that normal running shoes get, I think the investment is well worth it.
I'll keep the updates coming on this experiment as we prepare for IronKids Nationals!