Does Your Equipment Hurt More Than Help?

Justin Lind


Kettlebells, Gymnastics, CrossFit


I write this in the after-glow of today’s workout, my creative energy peaking as I slowly come down from my exercise high. I imagine that putting slightly sweaty fingers to keyboard is a common occurrence for many of the other coach/writers here at Breaking Muscle as well. Exercise provides an optimal clarity of mind to write. Focus on the minutiae of either coaching or training often brings the insights that become articles.


From today’s insight, I question my methods rather than celebrate them. I just ran my regular five to six-mile loop a whole minute faster. Rather than basking in this PR, my response falls somewhere between questioning and outright alarm.



This improvement, I suspect, is not a random leap forward from consistent training. Today was the first run in a new pair of shoes. I could simply declare that I found a better shoe for me and pat myself on the back for a job well down. I must be awesome and my training is really paying off.


My coach’s sense feels suspicious and the humble half of my ego knows that while progress often comes in random leaps, all evidence points to the shoes. Most telling of the shoes’ acclaim, they offer more padding and support than the “barefoot” style shoes that I have exclusively trained in for 3-4 years.


Barefoot running and the footwear that claim to mimic it are not without controversy. My running background and transition into minimal running shoes allow the insight about my not-so-mysterious PR.


I have been running for 15 years, from a high school freshman through my recent 30th birthday. The first 10 years were competitive: varsity cross-country and track and field leading to collegiate triathlon. The last five years were more of a moving meditation to supplement my other fields of training. I began transitioning into “barefoot” style running shoes about five years ago, slowly scaling back the padding, support, and heel elevation, while gently ratcheting up the mileage. While my running form can always improve, I have never sustained a running injury and I can now smoothly carry my 185-pound frame through a 45 to 60 minute run on essentially bare feet.


Does Your Equipment Hurt More Than Help? - Fitness, fitness equipment, barefoot running, proprioception, daily exercise, training method


The most important factor to this transition was awareness and humility. Safe barefoot running demands constant attention on your stride and foot strike, and the humility to slow down or walk when you feel the softness of your forefoot strike degrade. Injuries do not come from shoes or any other equipment. Injuries come to humans who, by lack of knowledge or awareness, continually repeat an imperfect pattern.



Less Assistance Brings More Awareness

My favorite feature of barefoot running shoes is their complete lack of features. They offer no support or padding aside from thin layer rubber as protection against sharp objects. They allow full sensation, enhancing your relationship to the ground. They demand that you place each step carefully to utilize the natural coil springs of your ankles and calves rather than relying on padding to absorb the ground impact force.


Barefoot shoes greatest benefit comes from demanding (and thus reinforcing) proper running form. his often means slowing down rather than setting new personal bests. Speed returns after building the strength to maintain a forefoot strike for many miles.


After growing accustomed to this intimate level of ground feel, I see conventional running shoes for what they are: insulation between foot and ground. Akin to performing surgery in ski gloves, highly padded soles numb your sensory feedback to movement. This would matter little if we could maintain perfect form without sensation. But, sensory feedback is the mechanism by which we gauge, correct, and maintain our running form.


In conventional running shoes, you will have no idea that you are doing anything harmful until it presents as an injury.




I felt this phenomenon today firsthand. My regular training loop has a particularly miserable straight-away just after midway. The unchanging, flat ground typically bring fatigued calves and a significant decline in my form. I survive this section by purposefully focusing on each foot fall while slowing enough to maintain form. Today I felt myself gliding easier through this section than ever before.


Support, But at What Cost?

Several minutes into the straight section I caught myself allowing heavier and flatter foot strikes, a form that brings immediate attention in my less-padded shoes. While still safe, my form had withered. Worse, I did not realize the decline for several minutes.


My old shoes would require that I slow my pace. This new layer of padding, while still minimal, allowed me to maintain a faster pace. But, at what cost?


The padding numbed my awareness to the increasing violence of each step. While I still realized my error quickly, the added “assistance” from my shoes blunted my senses allowing me to deviate further than I otherwise would. For the second half of my run I had to purposefully maintain attention on my form, now knowing that my equipment would not demand it.



It is possible that a breakthrough performance coincided with new shoes. It is also possible that the slight padding under-foot, even while maintaining perfect form, absorbed some impact to ward off fatigue, allowing me to run faster without sacrificing safety.


These are questions for me to explore as I continue to train in my new shoes. However, the insights from my run transcend barefoot running.


When Assistance Grows Into Insulation

Equipment can overstep its role of subtle assistance or support, insulating us from the very feedback required to improve. Thin layers of foam padding stand out as the obvious example today, but the fitness industry is full of gear that claims to aid and improve your performance.


I will always maintain that the two most potent qualities to cultivate in your training are a focused awareness of your body and learning to move based on sensation rather than visual cues.


Your closet, gym bag, and gym are full of opportunities to insulate your body from how it feels to move well. Tight fitting clothes and compression-wear can look stylish but also alter the tactile and sensory aspects of movement. Knees sleeves and wrist wraps provide support to move heavy weight, but also cover any weaknesses in their associated joints and limit efforts to strengthen them. Squatting in Olympic lifting shoes improves the depth and stability of your squat position while blocking the opportunity to achieve these qualities naturally. And of course, padded running shoes allow you to pound out the miles and push the pace, but enable you to continue with habits that lead to eventual injury.


Does Your Equipment Hurt More Than Help? - Fitness, fitness equipment, barefoot running, proprioception, daily exercise, training method


Nearly every piece of training gear I have encountered performs its stated task, at least in part. However, each piece of “assistance” also comes with a hidden cost. A hidden cost in the form of allowing suboptimal movement patterns while simultaneously preventing and disincentivizing you to correct them.


Gear Is Simply a Tool

Rather than assuming that the best path comes from training as close to naked as possible (guilty), understand that gear is simply a tool. A little assistance can bring benefits that far outweigh the trade-offs. Lifting straps might prevent you from improving your grip strength, but they allow you to deadlift far beyond the limits of your grip. They absolutely deserve a place in an effective strength program. Understanding both the benefits and the trade-offs (and yes, there are always trade-offs) helps you better craft your training. Resist the allure and promises of fancy new gear to consider how it will add to and detract from your training. Every piece of gear and apparel are tools. The best we can do is make informed decisions about their use.

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