Walk with a crutch, and you’ll develop a limp - Unknown
There is a funny story told by Hugh Laurie, that after playing House for 9 seasons he instinctively starts walking with a limp any time a director yells ACTION on a new project.
Hugh is perfectly fine, but his character Dr Gregory House needed a walking stick to get around with his bum leg. After performing so much with it, the limp became part of Hugh’s natural rhythm.
Not such a bad thing, if it’s your job or large part or your day then it takes a cognitive load off by flying on autopilot.
Our bodies and minds are adaptable like this, and for the most part it saves us time and energy.
But what happens when they adapt too much?
FROM SUPPORTED TO DEPENDANT
Our bodies are always in some kind of light survival mode - storing extra energy for later, breaking down unnecessary and costly structures (muscles we’re not using) and growing in response to stimulus (running from predators, lifting heavy items that need to be moved). This makes them incredibly malleable, and they can be trained to perform or survive some fantastic feats.
While they can adapt to survive freezing temperatures and insane endurance events, they also adapt to our less extreme environments - things like sitting in an office (altering our posture and alignment) and wearing tight, pointed shoes (altering the structure of our feet).
It’s this latter adaptability that can get us into trouble.
Like most things, it starts innocently enough. In one scenario, we’re thinking about running. Without much running experience, we pick shoes that offer extra arch and heel support, maybe some added cushioning to protect our joints. This makes sense, as we don’t run much so our body doesn’t have all the necessary adaptations to running for long periods of time - it hasn’t had any stimulus to adapt to this kind of thing.
So far so good, the shoes help us to get out and running without risking any damage to our feet from the new experience. We’re improving our running, and keeping ourselves from injury - a good choice by all accounts.
After a while, we’ve worn out these shoes - we’ve been busy racking up the miles and kicking all kinds of fitness ass. But what to choose?
Say there’s three choices in front of us: a shoe with less support than our current pair, a shoe with about the same level of support, and one with more support and cushioning.
Looking at our feet, we might think we’ve not got a great arch or the best foot strike, we’ve been training with the supported shoes and they’ve been working well enough - so which should we go for?
In this scenario, each choice represents a potential future: one will improve the biomechanics of our feet (arch, foot strike and musculature), one will keep it about the same, and one will doom us to pain and worsening feet.
If you picked the shoe that gives more support than the last shoe, consider yourself doomed to dependency.
STRONGER, OR MORE SUPPORTED?
Where the “more supported” people have gone wrong is forgetting that our bodies are super adaptable - removing stimulus or adding a passive one will produce matching results.
By adding extra support, we’re removing the stimulus “balance, and work for yourself”. By adding extra support, we’re removing our bodies need and ability to do that job.
I want to be clear, when starting out support is not a big deal - in fact it can be a great boon to getting you out and actually doing things. In the starting out context, I’m all for it.
What I don’t advocate, is using support for longer than we need it - because then we become dependant on it.
In the shoe scenario, the extra support will just tell our body “yeh don’t worry about arch or working the feet, the shoe is taking care of it”. In response, our arch will flatten and our feet will be altered for the worse. This misalignment and disrupted biomechanics through weakening foot muscle and structure will start to cause us problems - in response we’ll likely buy an even more supportive shoe, creating a cycle of weakening and reduced activity.
It’s a harsh circle, less activity causing our feet to become weaker, which causes pain which causes us to run even less. The reduced activity leading to… you get the picture.
So what would happen with the other shoes?
For the shoe that gives us the same level of support, it won’t help our feet any, but if everything is healthy it’s not a big deal. Keep crushing the miles and running more. There may be some problems, but as long as we don’t add needless support we can probably iron them out with some technique work.
For the less supportive shoe though, this one is going to force our feet to adapt. By taking away some of the support, we’re telling our body “HEY we need to adapt to this if we’re going to make it, get to work!”. This won’t be instantaneous, but if we start small and build up, getting used to the new stimulus, we’ll be adapted soon enough. It will take a little time to get used to, being careful not to overload them with work, but our feet will become stronger for it. Instead of needing a supportive arch, the muscles of our feet will create the arch themselves - storing elastic energy for running like it was made to do. Instead of needing a chunky heel, we’ll have adapted and improved our technique so our foot strike isn’t so jarring on our joints - eliminating the need for a cushion.
**If you’re interested in the idea of improving your feet with lower support shoes, or minimalist/barefoot style running, then I recommend you check out the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, where he finds some of the most incredible ultra endurance runners on the planet and gets trained in and learns the reasons behind some of their minimalist ways to improve his running technique**
This “becoming reliant” effect stretches far beyond running - take a look around any gym and you’ll see people with gloves, caffeine stimulants, back supports, knee supports, wraps, straps, belts and more.
Again, they’re all useful and valid pieces of equipment (apart from weight training gloves, they’re an abomination), utilised at the right time to keep us from injury when we’re in a compromised position or at a weak point. BUT if we use them too often, then our bodies start to adapt to them, maybe becoming weaker as a result.
Worse, our minds start to rely on them too. We start to psych ourselves out if we don’t have all the necessary bits and pieces, we start to panic if we don’t have our lucky wraps with us.
Beyond fitness, how many people do you know “can’t function” without caffeine? How many have an obsessive need for something that just isn’t necessary, and is making them weaker? Hell, how many joke about having a full blown addiction, but they really can’t quit it when the time comes?
While some support can be absolutely useful and necessary for getting awesome sessions in - I’m a proud belt, knee sleeve, caffeine, wraps and wrist straps user, using them for many an exercise and in competition - we just need to be careful that we’re only using them when it’s appropriate. Otherwise they’ll quickly go from supporting our bodies, to masking a weak area. Without working on that weak area, how are we ever going to make it strong - more support? Or giving it some stimulus to work with?
BUILD IT UP
When reducing support, he key is always to start small, and build on it. There’s nothing wrong with using a support to get started, but you need to reduce it unless you want to become reliant on it forever. This might mean reducing your training volume or intensity for a while, but that can be built back up once your body is stronger, and able to handle it.
This doesn’t mean you need to go cold turkey - just reduce the amount of time you use the support for, or just save it for the toughest sets. If you do decide to get down to brass tacks, just start small and build it up. It’ll take longer coming back from some overuse damage than it will just building up at a steady pace.
The only exception to all this is injury - here the support is preventing you from doing further damage, so use it as much as you need. Once it’s healed up, be smart and build it up again slowly. For more advice, make sure you consult with a qualified physician to eliminate the chance of overdoing it.
To conclude, I can’t say it enough that supports are useful and can enhance performance when used appropriately. Just be conscious of when and why you’re using then, being careful not to become totally reliant on them, and start letting them make decisions for you.
If it’s a weak area, then treat it as such - just remember how adaptable our bodies are.