Big Company Propaganda Running Circles Around The Science

The further my study and interest in Science Communications has progressed, the more I’ve come to realise that some things are, well, not old news, but certainly reoccurring news. Take for instance the misuse of science, by big companies to promote the benefits of their products, which in reality may result in anything from negligible benefits to significant detriment.

The good news is that a lot of understanding is catching on in the wider public, whether it is by conventional means of science communications….

Story: Homeopathy- Overdosing on Nothing

or by incidental means…

But there is one area of advertising-based bull-plop that very few members of the public—actually I’d go so far as to say, few members of the scientific community, too—are really aware of. Big companies that have hoodwinked us all; they’ve fed us lies about our own bodies, and for decades we have blithely stood there and said “Ooh, what a shiny new product, I want that one!”

But, before I get onto that, I want you all to do me a favour, and participate, get involved, get up out of your computer chair/beanbag/bed/spot on the floor, and go for a walk; just a quick walk, around your room/office/outdoor-wifi-connected area. Pay attention to the way you move, as you do so. Try not to make your movements too deliberate, but remind yourself what walking is like.

John Cleese does not demonstrate normal striding gait

Hopefully this is not how you were walking

Okay, have you done that? Good. So, you may have noticed what human biologists would call a “heel-strike striding gait”. It’s how we, as humans, move about.

Diagram representation of heel strike locomotion

Heel strike locomotion

Now, I’d really love it if you’d do me another favour—this will work best if you’re wearing running shoes. So, if you’re really into running, they might look like this

Reebok Zigtech shoes

Reebok "zigtech" shoes

or, if you’re not so fond of running, they may look a little more like this

Old running shoes

These look like they've seen better days

Personally, mine look like this

My shoes

My shoes have seen better days, too

If you are not wearing running shoes, a patch of soft grass should work, instead. Do a little run. You don’t have to get your heartbeat up; you don’t need to make yourself puffed or sweaty. Just run a little. Run the way you would if you were in a race, running late for the bus, escaping from a mugger. Go.

Man running

Great. So, did you find that your running was much like walking, but faster? If you’re like most people, then your running style will also involve a heel-strike striding gait. That’s why it feels comfortable to run in big cushy sneakers, like these

Nike turbo running shoes

Nike "Turbo" shoes

They absorb all of the impact of hitting the ground, and bounce you back up and on your way. Well… make it feel like they’re absorbing all the impact, anyway.

For the last forty or so years, companies like Nike, Adidas and Reebok have been making bigger, better, bouncier shoes, with chunky heel wedges to absorb that force.

So, why is it that running-related injuries are increasing? Well, obviously it must be because those shoes are making running easier and better for everyone, and if more people are running, then more people will get injured.

Not necessarily so. While the shoes stop the amount of force the sole of your foot is taking, there is still a whole lot of force wearing down your joints.

Heel striking as a running technique is not like homeopathic medicines, multivitamins and acupuncture that have been sold to the public, whilst skeptics stand back and wonder how marketing can be so effective.

No, heel striking has pretty much everyone convinced. That’s just how we run, isn’t it? And the big, cushy shoes protect us while we do. There would be more injuries without them…. right?

I know I’m pushing it, but could you do my one last favour? Take off your shoes, find a gravelling bit of road, or path with some stones in it; something that you wouldn’t normally want to run on, and have a go.

These photos are of two Kalenjin runners from Kenya, a barefoot 12-year-old girl (left) and a boy of the same age in running shoes. Note the differences in foot angulation as the girl prepares for a forefoot touchdown and the boy prepares to land heel first. (Photos from original images: D. E. Lieberman.)

When you run barefoot on a hard or uneven surface, you find your forefoot will naturally point downward, as you place the ball of your foot on the ground. Then your ankle bends, your heel strikes the ground last, if at all. And that way you save from hurting your feet. Instead of your heel, joints and bones taking the force, your muscles take the force. This means your muscles have to work, when ordinarily they would not. The difference is that sore muscles will repair themselves. Muscles get bigger and stronger. When you wear down your bones and joints, you get cartilage injuries, inflamed tendons and stress fractures.

There are studies, which show the differences between the forces involved in heel strike running and forefoot running. Harvard’s Dr. Daniel Leiberman is at the forefront of these studies, and has some insightful points to make on the topic.

So, what am I really trying to say to you? Basically, what I am getting at is that heel-strike running is not necessarily a great idea. It’s energy efficient in the short term, but it increases the risk of injury.

Then why do we do it? Well, studies suggest that we don’t do it naturally. Just like how you stopped heel striking when you had to run barefoot on a hard surface, groups of people who have been kept away from westernized marketing still use the forefoot running technique—something that our ancestors probably used to hunt and gather, long before the concept of modern running shoes and sports science came to play.

Unfortunately science doesn’t get far without someone cashing in. After all these studies to show that we don’t need big shiny shoes made by the most profitable companies, we’re seeing the emergence of new companies, selling slim, shiny “barefoot” running shoes. Kinda defeats the purpose if you ask me.

If you can handle the overly journalistic writing style, I recommend having a read of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. It’s not the greatest example of science communications, but it does raise some interesting points and tell some cool stories. It certainly does make my feet itch to go running. I’d be interested to hear what others think of the ideas.

By clayte01

7 comments on “Big Company Propaganda Running Circles Around The Science

  1. Very persuasive argument made for another example of profit over truth. Great blog!
    Still wonder how Ethiopians remain the best long distance runners in the world, seemingly with the traditional more natural way of running. Could they have been shielded long enough from the commercial Western style stint through circumstances or do they remain faithful in what they have learned from the start and trust their instinct better than runners in Westernised cultures?

  2. Well, maybe I have fallen prey to the big companies, not nike and adidas and such – but for vibram fivefingers! I find barefoot running more comfortable (except maybe on concrete), and have never been very good at running in shoes with big, chunky heels. I hope vibrams are not just another way of scamming us! (But, profit is the main driver of products, so probably). I haven’t yet been injured running with vibrams (they protect your feet from glass and prickles), but I always had sore calves with regular runners. Even if I have been scammed into buying a fancy, expensive product, I still think they are a great way to run!

  3. I can understand falling prey to Vibram, as a big company. I’ve said that they’re cashing in, but I do kinda really want some fivefingers (I just don’t want to pay the price).

    I used to forefoot run, then started going to the gym, and got told I should be heel striking. I did that for about six months, running less and less as I found that I ended up with sore hips and knees for days after running. I was advised to buy big, chunky “running” shoes, which I did, but they didn’t help.

    Then I started training parkour, and was reintroduced to forefoot running, and barefoot running techniques, which is what got me interested in reading up about the science, and trying to understand how and why we run the way we do.

    I don’t really know that much about Ethiopian long distance runners, but the Ra’ramuri, also known as Tarahumara, are a tribe of people that live in an area called the Copper Canyons, in Mexico. I think their name translates to “The Running People”.

    They run for recreation, as sport, as transport, to hunt (they will run until the animal they are chasing overheats and dies) and as a cultural experience. They have spiritual events which involve a huge party night, then marathons which may last for days of non-stop running.

    In both cases, I think that it is entirely possible that they have been shielded from Western culture. As my post pointed out, it’s really only been since the 1970’s that chunky-heeled running shoes have been effecting the Western running styles.

    Whilst profit and marketing shouldn’t be the most important thing, maybe because of companies like Merrel and Vibram, selling “barefoot” running shoes, they will be able to combat the marketing of “traditional” running shoes, and the word will be able to get out a bit more, and more people will be able to make the decision for themselves about how they want to be running.

  4. Fascinating! Thank you for writing this!

    Haha, just the other day I heard a rather strange song on the radio that relates to this topic. Personally, I didn’t like the song much, but the lyrics kind of made me think a little. The chorus went something like “Newspapers, radio, cable TV…making us buy what they think we need…*some missing lyrics I can’t recall*…because we believe their lies, liieee–iees”

    As science communicators, we technically “market” and “advertise” Science. Perhaps this is a lesson for us in that, whatever the Science we communicate, we should indeed be thinking about what the audience needs. And not just think about it, but go find out from the audience themselves. What we THINK an audience is like or what they need may not actually be the case (e.g. with the running shoes and “how we run”). Another example might be with the use of images. Images without text are pretty much subject to a viewer’s own interpretation (that is affected by many factors including their own beliefs and attitudes), and the image creator’s perception and intention may be completely different. As such, baseline research about your audience is crucial for the effectiveness of any science communication strategy.

    • Yvette, your comments are always thought provoking! I guess we are “selling” the science, but I like to think that we wont be selling lies or half truths without explaining the consequences, things like “these shoes reduce injuries” [subtext: compared with other shoes that promote heel-striking] which, to me are about the same as “50% less fat” [subtext: than other high fat content snack food, but still about 50% more than your RDI].

      In fitting with believing everything good about the world that I possibly can, I’m going to choose to believe that when we market science we make that subtext a little more understandable, and don’t try to muffle the cons when we up-sell the pros of our science.

      In fact, I would say that is often exactly what we are trying to do; when we’re trying to show the public that a breakthrough in anti-cancer research doesn’t actually mean a cure for cancer it generally just means we understand a little more, or we can fight it a little better.

      What do you think?

  5. Very interesting post! I still don’t quite understand how it is the the shoes make us run heel to toe but I believe the science! Personally, I have stress fractures in the balls of my feet from years of irish dancing, so I will do anything to stay off the front of my foot! Guess I could be in for knee replacements when I’m older… Mind you, I would have to be a keen runner for that to be an issue.. which I’m not!

    The new ‘barefoot’ runners also annoy me. Why pay for shoes when you can just run barefoot!

    • Ash, it’s not just the shoes themselves, but the way they are marketed. Advertisements with athletic types, heel-strike running, and “science” about how the new type of patented foam/plastic/rubber will make you a better runner, and reduce impact on your feet. Having said that, the shoes do make a big difference. From my own experience, trying to forefoot run in chunky-heeled shoes is difficult, whereas with bare feet or thin-soled shoes I find it natural.

      I think in your particular case it’s probably for the best if you don’t take up barefoot running. I don’t know, perhaps there are ways you could strengthen your feet…. that would be, if you wanted to take up running…

      The “barefoot” shoes basically mean that they’ll protect the soles of your feet from cuts, grazes, prickles, glass etc, without changing the way your foot moves on the ground, which means that the rubber the soles are made out of needs to be very flexible and thin, but also very durable. That is what you pay for in “barefoot” running shoe.

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