Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Barefoot Running Fad

Didn't we just do this a few years ago? It seems like the running and triathlon communities go through cyclical phases. Not too long ago, barefoot running was the new craze. The Newton and Nike Free was inspired. Several running injuries later, everyone was back in orthotics. I had several friends that forced their biomechanically inefficient foot into barefoot running only to end up with stress fractures. Now, a few short years later, barefoot running is suddenly all the rave. Am I the only one that remembers that we just did this?

After reading Christopher McDougal's Born to Run , a fascinating book about Mexico's mystic ultrarunning tribe, the Tarahumara, one might think running shoes are the root to all evils. There is quite a bit about the benefits of barefoot running and a lot of slams against running shoes. The argument is that our ancestors ran barefoot and no one suffered running injuries. The author even goes as far to say that before cushioned running shoes and orthotics, no one got injured, suggesting that running shoes cause injuries. There is absolutely no evidence to support this, and I'm not sure how one would go about designing a controlled experiment to test this hypothesis.

We've all heard that running on the fore or mid-foot is more biomechanically efficient and causes less stress on the body than landing on the heel. In a recent study published in Nature, reveals that habitually barefoot runners tend to land on the forefoot while habitually shod runners land on the heel. Force a barefoot runner to wear shoes, and, whallah, they become heel strikers. This study has sent shockwaves through the running community and made it into the New York Times and NPR . I'm not sure you can extrapolate this data to say those who are used to wearing shoes would get less injuries if they went barefoot, and there's absolutely no way to evaluate a cause-and-effect of running shoes and said injuries.

My fear is that runners accustomed to their favorite running shoe will suddenly ditch the shoes and go naked. For those lucky few used to running barefoot, great. For the rest of us who weren't born with perfect biomechanics, running barefoot for long miles is a great recipe for injury. In addition, our soft feet simply weren't built to run on asphalt and pavement. Yes, now Nike has come out with the "Five Fingers" to prevent blisters and cuts. And I can see the benefit of running barefoot for short distances on soft surfaces to build muscle in your feet and increase body awareness of the impact between your foot and the ground. However, everything in moderation. Don't throw out your running shoes just yet.

Most running articles advocating barefoot running warns against jumping into it full throttle. Try easing into it, say once a week for a few miles on sand. Heck, I already do that, just for fun. Be aware that it's hard on your arches and calves. Plantar fasciitis, anyone? Wait. Isn't that a running injury?

Links to Barefoot Running (Pros & Cons):
Nature Commentaries:

Americans Long Way from Running Barefoot

Runner's World:
Should You Be Running Barefoot?
The Barefoot Running Debate
Barefoot Running: An Opposing View

Barefoot Running Advocates:
Barefoot Ted
Minimalist Runner


Grey Beard said...

Thanks for your take on this trend Rachel. I am watching with some interest, and have many of the same science or lore reservations with regard to the Paleo diet.

I used to run on the beach and that is pretty kind on the body, but I still ended up buying running flats to prevent having my feet sanded down to the bone.

I wonder what the average life expectancy was of those ancient runners so vaunted in McDougal's book? You can get by with damned near anything until your 40's. Then all of your abuses tend to bite you in the butt at the same time. Cascading failures are not fun at all!

Andy said...

Thanks for the update! I do remember this trend a few years ago and triathlete magazine along with runners world and a few other publications made it sound like the next best thing. Now I have modified my stride personally to be more forefoot striking, and it has helped. But I agree that I am not going to throw my shoes away and start running barefoot. While our ancestors did not have shoes (or had shoes with no cushioning), we have trained ourselves to walk/run with shoes today, so why arbitrarily throw that out the window? Learn to run mid-forefoot, purchase shoes that allow you to do that. Thanks again! Have a great rest of your weekend!

Caroline Novak said...

Like your thoughts on the barefoot running thing. You say pretty much what the top shoe guy at Asics recently talked about at a workshop. It's funny because I did see a runner at a half marathon today in the Vibram 5 Finger shoes, and couldn't help wondering if he'd get injured on the asphalt in those. Might as well stick to what works instead of paying big bucks for shoes that make you feel like you're running barefoot, which is sort of ironic too.

live better said...

I am with you, after I run the half marathon in April I am going to try a little barefoot running but I will proceed cautiously. I agree there may be some benefit to adding a little barefoot running to your regular cladfoot routine. Good post.

Tucker Goodrich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tucker Goodrich said...

"The Barefoot Running Fad" Great title. People have been running in their bare feet for 2 million years, and in sneakers for 40. Which one is the fad?

The argument for bare vs. shod is too long to put in a comment, but I will note this. The US Army is one of the few organizations that has a long history of physical activity, has the resources to track everything, and has a major incentive to keep soldiers healthy. In 1915 the Army released a major study, "The Soldier's foot and the Military Shoe", that found that badly-designed footware would "deform" your feet and leave you unable to run. They created a "natural" boot that reduced injury dramatically: this is the GI boot that we fought WWI and every subsequent war in. Soldiers ran then as now, but running injuries *were never even mentioned as a problem*.

Fast foward to today: what's the number-one injury in basic training? Running-related injuries. What's the Army doing about it? You guessed it.


So something took running injuries from being not worth mentioning to the number one problem. Bad running form, as promoted by sneakers.

If you do decide to try it out, you must ease into it. It's a major change. Bones in the feet weakened by being shod can fracture under the stress, until they have time to strengthen.

(Typos fixed.)

Nelson said...

I have read that before, and as someone just starting out with running, I can't help but ignorantly think that this is a cause and effect thing. The few things I have read indicate that barefoot runners "learn" proper technique because it hurts to be a barefoot heel-striker. Doesn't that just mean that if I wore sneakers, AND used proper form I would enjoy double the benefit? Also, I have been looking at the POSE method of running, which sounds interesting, but I have also read that doing it involves a lot of concentration and intricate control. To me that means that even if you are trying really hard to run correctly, unless you are a naturally gifted runner, at least some of your foot strikes are going to be sub-optimal. If that's true then at least a portion of your foot-strikes will be bad, and in a marathon, a portion of a ginormous number of foot-strikes is quite a large number. Someone my have to check the math there.

RoadBunner said...

I think you have a very realistic approach to this. I have a pair of VFF's but do view them as cross-training for my muscles vs. something to replace my running shoes. I do admit they drastically change the way you strike the ground (I am usually a heel striker, but it hurts when I do that in the VFF's so I start using a more forefoot approach).

Pb said...

The fad is shoes as they are only 40 years old and we have been running barefoot for millions of years so they say
I have used barefoot running in three triathlons this year and next year plan to continue to develop the running form to complete run a 21 k in a half ironman and full marathon barefoot. Currently I am running 30k/week and my have never been healthier. All the best

Unknown said...

running shoes have been around for 40 years but that makes them bad? I am not seeing the logic of some of these comments (probably because it isn't there).

Penicillin or sterilization weren't around for millions of years, does that mean that medicine was better without them.

Barefoot running to "cure" and "prevent" injury is the equivalent to the people who chose holistic cancer treatments over real medicine.

The OP was right but his terminology is wrong. Its this new revival of barefootrunning that is the fad