I know you wrote a blog in September 2007 where you don’t advocate barefoot running. With the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, there is an increased interest in running barefoot. There are “shoes” that now mimic running barefoot such as a shoe by Terra Plana, Vibram Fivefingers and Nike Free. There are websites and articles that go into detail why barefoot running is good for you and shoes are bad. It seems that there are claims that running shoes actually can cause injuries. The minimalist movement is on. I was wondering if there are studies backing up either claim that running shoes reduce injuries or if running shoes decrease injuries. What is your opinion? Thanks, Christina
Many articles share quotes by a number of barefoot running advocates who argue strongly that running in minimalist shoes, or unshod, reduces the likelihood of injury: After all, we evolved without shoes didn’t we?
Let’s start here.
If running in shoes were so bad for us then why are there are a number of studies out that simply counter the idea of joint damage while running. One interesting study from Stanford found sedentary people to have five times more incidence of disabling leg problems than those who ran. Here’s another interesting point from that study, those who ran 15 miles per week had 60% less joint injuries than those running 5 miles per week or less. In a separate study, there was no link between high arched (more rigid) and flat arched feet and injury-proneness. And these are runners with shoes!
Barefoot Craze Is Not New
British Olympian (1956) Gordon Pirie in his “Running Fast and Injury Free” e-book states, “Look closely at the footwear worn in major championship events, and you won’t see anyone competing in anything except the very lightest racing spikes. No one in the Olympic Games or World Championships races in the overstuffed, wage-healed orthopedic boots that most joggers wear. This is not surprising, as the difference between running in bare feet and in the typical jogging shoe can get to 30 seconds a mile and I therefore advise all my trainees to where the very lightest shoes they can find for training.” Though he advocates minimalist shoes, note that he did not race barefoot nor do his runners. He does integrate some barefoot running into training however.
Similarly in McDougall’s Book barefoot Ted promotes the idea of barefoot running as a panacea to injury prevention and painless ultra-marathoning. Again a single example of being a capable of running great distances barefoot without injury does not mean it is right for others.
But this is where Mr. Pirie, Mr. McDougall and most running pundits go wrong. Comparing Olympic level runners to the average everyday runner is a problem to start with. Olympic runners are elite. They are a self-selecting group. It can be argued that elite runners are able to run in minimalist shoes because they are genetically gifted to the point that they can. And even at risk of increased injury with a minimalist shoe the payoff is worth it with Gold Medals and huge payouts. Perhaps it is the Darwinian Law of Running. However to make the generalization that all runners can also use a minimalist shoe is terribly ill advised and myopic.
An excellent article came out in the newspaper this past Sunday. It was written by Mary Beth Fowler of the Arizona Republic. She starts the article quoting McDougall’s “Born to Run”. She mentions the barefoot running of a Tarahumara tribe of Mexico. She interviews a local runner who runs barefoot as well as a high school cross country coach who advocates at least some barefoot running for her young runners. However what I especially like about this article is that she looked for balance in her article.
She interviewed a professor in podiatric medicine at Midwestern University who reviewed dozens of studies on barefoot running. Here is one of the quotes I’m so glad that she includes in her article. “Advocates say that barefoot runners have less injuries, but we haven’t been able to prove that yet. My gut feeling is that some of the perceived benefits are real but I cannot this say for sure.” He goes on to add “there might be less impact but that impact would have to go somewhere, maybe into the muscles and joints instead of the heel.”
Just Some Practical Points of Fact
Fact: Western society grows up with shod feet. Our entire lives are spent with shoes on our feet. We have not grown up barefoot running working walking in the Kenyan or northern Mexico mountains. Therefore it is a fallacy to make a comparison between vastly different cultural upbringings.
Fact: Other than a rare occasion will you ever find an elite runner running barefoot. A couple notable past exceptions are Zola Budd (1980s) & Abebe Bikila (1960s).
Fact: When introduced to racing the Tarahumaras have had very mixed results as barefoot runners in ultra-endurance events.
Fact: Both scientific studies and barefoot runners admit that barefoot running creates shorter strides. And though stride frequency may quicken to partially compensate in the end, speed is a function of stride length and stride frequency. Ideally the goal is to create an optimal stride combined with an optimal stride frequency. Take anything from either of these two critical components and the net effect is slower running. If you are interested at all in improving your times… it won’t likely be done barefoot.
Fact: Stride shortening appears to be a protective mechanism to reduce shock to the feet. However it is not known yet whether shock is transferred to other structures of the body.
Fact: Barefoot running has come to light once again just as it has in the 1970s. It is a fad. It will work for some. It is an experiment of one. And other than for some fun drills for variety, I do not endorse barefoot running.
For me intuitively though the concept of minimalist running is alluring the drawbacks are far greater than any benefits for most runners most of the time. It is consistently mentioned in articles (scientific, advocate, how-to) I have read in my review that repeatedly state that should you undertake barefoot running you must pursue it cautiously and gradually. The reason this is stated is because it can very readily induce injuries. So, how is something that is so good for you and “natural” and that we were “evolved to do” cause so much warning even from advocates?
Finally, if you would like to try barefoot running I would recommend you do so with extreme caution. Even the most ardent supporter of barefoot running advocates introducing barefoot running into your routine slowly. Again the reason for this is because of a greatly increased possibility of injuries. If you would like to experiment and introduce barefoot running into your program whether for experimentation or novelty I recommend that you introduce two to three 100 yard strides on a level, clear grassy area. See how it goes. Good luck… I’ll stick to my Asics thank you very much.