Another Barefoot Running Story

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.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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14 Responses to Another Barefoot Running Story

  1. Jim says:

    ah..the current hot debate in running and the shoe industry. And as always, the shoe industry follows the current hot topic, and makes shoes to accomodate that hot topic. Everyone is now making low profile, back to natural running, ergonomic, and whatever other name you want to give them shoes. It wasnt all that long ago that the hot topic was tortional rigidity, and before that pronation and before that…..

    My 2 cents worth. And this is just my preference, but I prefer to run in shoes that are minimal. Usually racing shoes and very lightweight trainers. I dont like the feel of the overbuilt running shoes on the market today. They are too inflexable, too heavy, too rigid. That is just my preference. But that is as close to running barefoot as I get. Our bodies are just not adapted to run unshod. And its not just the cushion factor, but our feet arent tough enough and calloused enough to handle rough surfaces, not to mention stones, glass and whatever hazzards are out there. I agree that if you want to do it, find a track, and run on the grassy infield on the inside of the track. I have done this, and its kind of nice to be running without shoes, but my entire stride changes, I shuffle, and feel very awkward. It is not a smooth feeling at all. Would it ever get better over time, I tend to doubt it, as stated in my brothers comments, and other experts, your body has to adapt somehow to absorb the shock, and the shorter stride is one of the ways. The advocates for barefoot running tend to be a little over the top in their spouting of the benefits. I’m not so sure the benefits are really there All in all, its not something I personally would ever do. But if you decide to try it…as stated before..exercise caution and restraint

  2. Dean,
    Thanks for this post. I’m actually writing one of my own about barefoot running. I think your commentary and those of the reporter you mentioned are right on.

    There’s a great deal of buzz on this topic and it’s tough to cut through to the truth when the advocates border, at times, on zealotry. They shout that there’s no proof running shoes prevent injuries while at the same time lacking credible evidence to support the supposed benefits of unshod running. Kinda hard to take them seriously.

    In fact, I think they’re doing themselves and the running community at large a disservice by claiming to find a shoeless nirvana. They make it sound like you can just strap on a pair of Five Fingers and cure all that ails you. Having worked in a running store and fit countless runners in different shoes it’s very clear to me that only a small percentage of back, or even middle, of the pack runners have the patients and self-awareness in regards to training to take on such an extreme change in footwear. I feel that the advocates are dooming those who are listening to additional injury.

    That said… over the last 10 months, I’ve gone from running fulltime in a “stability shoe” (Asics Evolution) to running fulltime in a somewhat stiff, but “neutral shoe” (Mizuno Rider). Part of this process involved running once a week in a pair of Five Fingers. I started off in the Five Fingers just doing just a mile a week and wearing them day-to-day. Now I’m comfortably up to 5 miles and no longer use the Evolutions at all. In fact, I tried them on a couple of weeks ago and they hurt my feet so bad I had to cut my run short. This from a line of shoe that I’ve been wearing for 7 years!

    All of this swapping around of shoes was driven by my aching Achilles. And while I did suffer some tender weeks of icing and massage during the process I feel I’ve come out the other side of the injury for the better. So… while I’m far from a zealot, I do believe there’s something to it… if you’re very, very careful.

  3. Dean Hebert says:

    Excellent comments.. thanks…

  4. Seoirse says:

    Although its natural to be born with no clothes and no shoes and one would think it would therefore natural to run barefoot, but just the contrary is the case. How long have you been wearing shoes/running shoes? My guess is ALL YOUR LIFE, so if you where to start running now barefoot your going against what you have thought your body for 20, 30, 40 or 50+ years, so in my humble (un scientific) view, running barefoot will cause you more problems than running with, as its what your body (feet) are accustomed to and have developed over many, many years through training. Of course you will have the people saying “oh but the human body is millions of years old in evolution” and while that is true, your specific body has not. (sorry if I didn’t explain myself so well, I hope you get the idea)

  5. Dean Hebert says:

    S –
    I think you hit a major flaw in the rationale behind this whole pro-barefoot thing. That is: humans have evolved over millions of years BUT an individual has not. The individual is under the influence or “evolution” for 20, 30 50 or 80 years… not millions. And those years are filled with shod feet.
    Thanks for the observation.

  6. Dean Hebert says:

    Yup…. similar to many things I’ve read. I’m still not convinced and they are still using a faulty argument of “evolution”. And as this proponent even states… no injury data on this.

  7. Seoirse says:

    The anthropologist
    said in that paper “he’s not taking sides over which style of running is better or safer” so he is sitting on the fence. That doesn’t give off the aura of confidence to me.

  8. run4change says:

    greatly said

  9. Aaron says:

    “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.”

    That’s not a fact, it’s a guess.

    I can tell you as a long-time barefoot runner that people shorten their stride when their feet are either too sensitive to the running surface or they force themselves to run over very technical terrain. It has absolutely nothing to do with shock absorption.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Interesting but you are guessing as well. My comment comes directly from several research on the topic. I’ll take the researchers’ guesses. It’s not to say you are wrong… but, anytime someone has something at stake in supporting an argument, and another (the researchers) are trying to scientifically determine mechanisms… always err on the more unbiased comment… until more evidence is available to provide stronger support one way or the other.

  10. Kyle Norman says:

    Thanks for the posts on this topic. I’ve written a bit on the same issue. This whole topic fascinates me.

    I’m a personal trainer with an understanding of how enormously important proper foot function is to everything up the chain–all the way to the neck and shoulders. I definitely do not advocate all runners or fitness enthusiasts switching gears and going the shoeless or Vibram route forever and ever; but from what I’ve seen of people who are in some sort of pain, doing some barefoot work often has a positive effect. This may mean doing some gym work in minimal footwear (I now lift in Vibrams.) It may mean SOME running perhaps on a soft surface. From what I’ve seen it’s worth allowing the foot to move as it was designed to move. A huge mistake though is trying to replace all your running in a structured shoe with all your running in a minimal shoe. That’s about like jumping from five miles per week to 30 miles per week.

  11. Pingback: Barefoot May Not Be the Cure-All | Denver Fitness Journal

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