A pretty good article appeared in USA Today about barefoot running. It’s a follow up to a recent American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) periodical that focused on this craze and analyzed all of the research that’s been done on the subject. And while the evidence isn’t clear the truth is actually quite simple to sort out looking at the data and consulting a bit of lore and logic.
It’s funny the way crazes work in America. For something to be truly popular it seems rationale must be chucked aside so views can become polarized and everyone can stand on different sides of a fence slinging shit each other. Barefoot running is one of the strangest examples of this because almost nothing about this movement makes much sense except for the fact that the book Born to Run was a great read and businesses are always looking for an angle to make money. Shoes that promise to mimic being barefoot now take up nearly half the space in the running shoe section and, fer crissakes, how many pairs of shoes do you need to mimic being barefoot?
The article is worth reading because it examines both sides of the issue without taking sides. Running barefoot supposedly has become popular because it reduces injury rates but according to the statistics, at least so far, this hasn’t been the case. Runners get hurt quite regularly and percentages haven’t changed much for as long as we’ve been keeping data. In some demographics it’s gotten worse:
Podiatrist Paul Langer used to see one or two barefoot running injuries a month at his Twin Cities Orthopedics practice in Minneapolis. Now he treats between three and four a week. “Most just jumped in a little too enthusiastically,” said Langer, an experienced runner and triathlete who trains in his barefoot running shoes part of the week.
The article points out that 30-70% of runners have a stress-related injury each year, no matter how they run. The ACSM goes further stating that this number has remained constant for the last 40 years. Granted, this is a laughably-huge range but the fact is clear in that no matter what you do if you run regularly you will probably get injured at some point. I’ve been to Mexico and seen Tarahumara run and I’ve seen them injured, too. Yes, I would bet the farm that they get injured less but is that because they run in tire sandals or something more rational? I don’t think we need a study to find out the answer.
While not quoted in the article, most of the numbers used come back to Daniel Lieberman’s work published by the ACSM. Lieberman has done exhaustive research on the subject, much of it cataloged on this website. In the article, What We Can Learn About Running from Barefoot Running: An Evolutionary Medical Perspective he writes, “We have much to learn. However, if there is any one lesson we can draw already from the barefoot running movement it is that we should be less afraid of how the human body functions naturally.”
And while it’s inconclusive from a scientific standpoint, as most things are, a few observations are clear.
1. Shoes and inactivity have made us weak. As we’ve become more sedentary our feet (along with everything that’s attached to them) has become weaker. To combat this we’ve made shoes with support in an attempt to avoid injuries and this has exacerbated the issue.
2. Everyone should train their feet, especially runners. The solution to the above is that we need to train our feet. I mean, we need to train everything but we need to train our feet specifically, especially if we want to become runners. Feet should/need to be trained un-shod. Injuries like plantar fasciitis didn’t really exist until recently and are easily combated with simple exercises, like this. The Tarahumara don’t get injured less due to magic footwear but because they spend their lives running, some of it barefoot, and their feet are stronger. Running barefoot also forces us to move naturally and focus on proprioceptive awareness, both huge advantages for runners.
3. We are faster with shoes. There is no dispute that footwear can allow us to mash through the elements with a greater margin for error, meaning we can run faster. When the Tarahumara are given shoes they get faster. Born To Run claims that opposite but no science backs it up. Here is one example but you don’t really need statistics, just a functioning thought process. A barefoot runner is at the same disadvantage on uneven terrain as is a rigid mountain biker in a downhill competition against a rider with 7 inches of travel.
The facts are that you are faster using shoes unless you get injured running with shoes. This is not so much a testament for running barefoot as it is for strategically training barefoot. To take this to mean that you should run barefoot all the time is a major point of conjecture. Not that there’s anything wrong with running barefoot all the time. Certainly there is not if you don’t mind embracing the obvious limitations. Barefoot runners inevitable claim of improved times comes from getting less injured, a point worth considering. But to state that it makes you faster is a fallacy.
A combination of barefoot and shod training will help you adapt best to all conditions and racing with shoes will allow you to run faster. What type of footwear you should use is a different topic altogether. Barefoot running and training should become standard protocol but the barefoot running shoe craze is a trend.
In conclusion, here’s what Born to Run’s protagonist, the late Caballo Blanco, had to say on the topic. “The point: None of that crap really matters, what or not one wears on their feet. Run Happy…Run Free” Still, you’ll want to get those neon pink Five Fingers while you can because they won’t be around forever.