Doug Robinson: Utah man's new running shoe could be golden

Published: Tuesday, June 18 2013 6:05 a.m. MDT

For the 30-year-old Harper, a former two-time state cross-country champion at Orem High and the conference 10,000-meter champion at BYU-Hawaii, the pursuit of a better running shoe has been a passion. He and his father recognized a problem with running shoes long before “Born to Run” raised the issue. Over the years, they estimate they sent some 3,000 pairs of their customers’ running shoes to a local shoe repair shop to have the heel sliced open and the foam cushioning removed. There was nothing on the market in which the heel and toe were the same height — running shoes place the heel 12 to 15 millimeters higher than the toe (a 2:1 drop is fairly standard). The Harpers claim Golden coined the popular term “zero drop” to describe shoes that put the toe and heel at the same level.

Harper concluded that not only did traditional running shoes impede proper running mechanics, but they were also injurious. He estimates that half of his father’s customers have bunions, plantar fasciitis, hammer toe and sesamoiditis, among other foot problems, which he blames on the design of running shoes.

“It’s like Chinese foot-binding,” says Harper. “The foot is shaped by shoes and over time there’s damage. Think about it: All the bones in the foot are being manipulated toward the front area of the foot for a beat down.”

The traditional running shoe is largely the creation of the late Bill Bowerman, the former Oregon coach and Nike co-founder who famously created running shoes by pressing foam into shoes with his wife’s waffle iron. Bowerman’s intent was to encourage a long stride in his runners. Believing the best way to do that was a heel-first foot strike, he put the padding in the heel. But a heel strike is both injurious and counterproductive. It means the runner strikes the ground in front of his body, which creates a braking effect with each stride. It also means the body does not absorb the shock of the foot strike as well as a proper mid-foot strike. Anyway, generations of shoe companies copied Bowerman, and most are still doing it more than five decades later.

“No one did any research,” says Harper. “They all just ripped off Bowerman by putting soft cushioning in the heel.”

As “Born to Run” noted, studies show that the padding of a shoe can be problematic, as well. “Runners in shoes that cost more than $95 were more than twice as likely to get hurt as runners in shoes that cost $40,” wrote author Christopher McDougall. Expensive shoes tend to overly cushion in the hope that it will protect the foot, but the foot actually strikes the ground harder with more cushioning because it seeks stability. Harper believes the resulting minimalist fad — little or no cushioning — went too far. The foot still needs padding and protection — that’s just common sense.

"Shoe companies have been making the same shoes for years," Harper concludes.

He hopes his new shoes will change the industry.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: drob@deseretnews.com

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