The thing is, the running shoe, as we know it, is all wrong. Comically wrong.
Just look at it. It’s not shaped like a foot; it’s shaped like a missile. It doesn’t work like a foot, either. The toes are crammed together, unable to spread out and fully contribute to forward propulsion. The heel is raised and padded, encouraging a heel-first foot strike and hindering the calf muscle from “loading” for a big push off the ground. The arch is pushed up, preventing the foot from flattening out to produce a spring effect. The front end is curled to further neutralize the role of the toes.
It’s a mess, and yet the running shoe has remained largely unchanged since the 70’s running boom, except to become more padded and more heel-oriented. Only in recent years, especially since the publishing of “Born to Run,” has the running shoe’s design really been questioned.
Golden Harper recognized these flaws years ago while selling shoes in his father’s store in Orem — Runner’s Corner. To put runners in the best shoe for their running mechanics and structure, he videotaped them running barefoot and then in shoes. He was amazed by what he saw.
“What I saw was that people run great without shoes, but when they run in training shoes, the wheels come off,” he says. “We just spent 45 minutes to sell them a shoe, and they run way better without the shoe. We were wondering, are we doing any good here? We’re selling them shoes to make them run bad!”
For years Golden and his father, Hawk, cut up shoes in the back room of Runner’s Corner and dabbled with building a better shoe — the heel of, say, a Nike, with the toe box of a New Balance, combined with the arch of a Mizuno, and so forth. Golden continued to pursue the creation of a better running shoe, eventually consulting a team of Portland-based biomechanical engineers on the project. The result is on the shelves of running stores nationally. The brand name of his shoe is Altra, and it’s the opposite of everything described in the first paragraph of this column, in both appearance and design.
“We’re giving people a shoe that’s a running technique lesson in a box,” says Harper. “It provides a natural foot and body position. You are instantly going to run better. You can see it immediately.”
Harper decided to challenge the Big Seven of running shoes — Brooks, Asics, Saucony, Nike, New Balance, Mizuno and Adidas — which dominate the field like Jamaican sprinters in the dashes. That’s why he sold the shoe to Logan-based Icon Health and Fitness (he retained a stake and a role in the company “heading up brand management” and, of course, is considered the shoe’s founder).
“We needed money, multi-millions, to compete with the big boys,” says Harper. “We could’ve gone grass roots and been a nobody. But, I’d rather have a small piece of something big than a big piece of something small. This deal allowed us to focus on building great shoes and teaching running form.”
For the uninitiated, breaking into the Big Seven in the running shoe business is like challenging McDonald’s and Wendy’s in the fast-food business, but Altra is making a run at them, pardon the pun.
“We are in year two and we pulled even with Adidas in sales a few months ago,” says Harper. “We are No. 8-ish nationwide, in about 500 stores. We should do about $20 million in sales this year and overtake Adidas and Mizuno.”
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: [email protected]