Let's just hope we're still running in the future
One of the most interesting aspects of getting older is the perspective one gains watching innovation change our world. I'm not quite old enough to remember sitting around the radio on Sunday evenings listening to Jack Benny. But I am old enough to remember our first television.
It was an unwieldy box with a small black and white picture. My father often had to replace burned out tubes so we could continue to watch the Packers beat the dickens out of whomever they played at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Soon there was color T.V., eventually HD and now 3D. What could possibly come next?
So it is with running. I have been around long enough to witness two "running booms" and numerous evolutionary changes to our sport. While we're still testing our legs in early 2012, I thought it might be fun to look back at a few things and speculate as to what will come next.
Yes, we wore shoes when I first got started running. (I'm old, not that old.) However, in the 1960s there were almost no real running shoes available. A few of the hardy marathoners of this era wore the New Balance Trackster II, a leather shoe with a ripple sole. Most of us ran in something akin to an indoor soccer shoe. These supple leather beauties had almost no heel-lift, maximal flexibility and minimal cushioning. We didn't need much cushioning as we mostly landed on our forefoot, making flexibility a key characteristic of a good shoe.
The next several decades saw the birth of several running oriented shoe companies. The shoes became more protective, more cushioned and offered greater control for the mechanical imbalances that most people experienced when they ran. Pronation became something to control. Foot strike impact became something to protect against. Runners were instructed to try and land on their heel as a means of softening the impact absorbed by the body.
Shoes now are "evolving" toward no heel lift, maximal flexibility and minimal cushioning. Runners are told to land on their forefoot so that they don't require as much shock absorption. We're even seeing footwear that looks like a glove with separate toes sheaths and nothing but a thin rubber layer underneath.
Wait, wasn't this just what we were trying to improve on 45 years ago? I wonder if I could dig out my old indoor soccer shoes. What's next?
If we are doomed to repeat ourselves, I suppose we will see the return of the Varus Wedge, Brooks' first attempt at a shoe to control pronation. More likely we'll see a hybrid between the truly minimal shoes - Vibram Five Fingers, for example - and the standard running shoes that most of us currently use. Indeed, Vibram now makes Five Fingers with laces.
I'm guessing we'll soon see minimal shoes that have low heel lift and good flexibility but enough mid-sole protection that we won't need 10 months just to build sufficient strength to go for an easy 30-minute run. Running shoes should work for us. We shouldn't have to alter our life so we can use the product.
My first running outfit consisted of a cotton T-shirt, mid-thigh length cotton shorts and cotton sweat socks. In the winter I wore a wool sweater with cotton thermal long underwear under my shorts. I looked pretty cool.
Soon enough I, and just about every other runner I knew, realized that cotton was not a great choice of exercise material. It absorbed sweat, became abrasive and left one very chilled in the winter. The wool sweater on the other hand, was outstanding. It insulated, dried from the inside out, wicked moisture away from the body and retained its insulting properties when wet.
Cotton was soon replaced with nylon. It was relatively soft, lightweight, wind proof and didn't leave you a shivering mess if it got wet. Shorts got shorter as we discovered it was easier to move if your thighs weren't bound up.
By the mid '80s we were blessed with the introduction of Lycra spandex to running clothes. I can still remember the first time I saw a pair of Hind Lycra tights - bright blue, as I recall, with stirrups under the foot. Many of my running companions said there was no way they would ever be caught running in these things.
But for someone used to running in cotton long underwear and men's dance tights in the winter, the look and feel of those first running tights was remarkable. I ran in them immediately and never looked back. Eventually so did everyone else. Now Lycra spandex is standard fare.
Companies also began to develop fabrics that would work like wool (wick, insulate when wet, keep the body dry when warm) but would not itch or chafe. These fabrics continue to be developed today.
Interestingly, wool is making a comeback (some say it never left). We now have companies making wool products that are light and soft, yet have all of the insulting properties of my old wool running sweater.
What's next? Perhaps we'll see clothing that improves on the body's way of regulating its temperature. Will we see microscopic tubes of coolant running up and down the legs of your shorts or tights? How about fabric that illuminates itself when powered by heat produced by your body? It would certainly help with night-time visibility. Then again, maybe we'll just stick to wool.
My first running watch had a sweep second hand that I could not stop. My first stop watch was a hand held timepiece with a mechanical second hand that registered in fifths of a second.
Remember watching that black and white television image of Bob Hayes winning the Olympic 100-meter dash in Tokyo as 9.9 flashed across the screen? Once the sole province of international competitions, personal electronic timing became available in the 1970s when Casio introduced a running watch that many of us could afford. It had a start/stop button and could also display the time of day. That was it.
Technology is one area where we will not return to our past. In the '70s, those wanting to know how far they ran, would estimate the distance based on elapsed time and estimated running speed. I still do this, although I continue to overestimate the distance as I underestimate how slow I am actually running.
Now we plug in our GPS watch and get not only a distance reading, but a speed calculation, heart rate, calories burned and a stored memory of every other run we've completed in the last month. We can download this information to our computers and get a print out showing specific progress toward our training goals.
GPS watches used to be so big we needed to do upper body work just to keep our arms moving smoothly. Now they are no bigger than my old Timex with the sweep second hand that didn't stop. As with most technology, watches, GPS units and heart rate monitors have come down in price far enough that many people can afford them.
I remember a fellow years ago who used to run with a transistor radio. This soon became a Walkman that would play cassette tapes. These evolved into MP3 players. Now folks just use their phones.
Not being too technologically savvy, it is hard for me to guess what will come next. I just hope it still involves running.
Those of us who used to go to the gym went to a small grungy place to lift weights. Now we go to "the club." (I don't do this, but that's what people tell me the gym is now called). There is any number of wondrous machines to train on. I hope that all of these machines still require you to do the work.
My fear is that soon we will sit on a machine that will be hooked to a computer. The computer will scan your body to determine the optimal workout for the day and electronically stimulate various muscle groups in order to achieve the desired training effect. Not going to happen, you say? Well, did you ever think you'd see the day when you could go for a run on a zero-gravity treadmill?
As we head into a new year, here's hoping we can all continue to capture some of what has always made running great. Improvements in shoes, clothing and technology are all fine. But it's the act of getting out the door, breathing the air and feeling alive that keeps us coming back. Let's hope that never changes.
Good running to you!
Tom Kaufman, of Madison, Wisconsin, has run more than 40 marathons in as many years of running. He teaches high school phys ed and coaches high school track and cross country, as well as community and masters athletes. He has a master's degree in physical education and a specialization in exercise physiology.