I originally wrote this article in 2009 and wanted to put an unedited version on the site.Things have moved on a lot since I wrote this but I though it good to see what I thought back then. A second article entitled minimalism, has more information and a more up to date view.
Barefoot running; running shoe companies have gone fairly silent on the matter, the barefoot runners are slamming it down your throats and won't stop until you have heard them and those who argue against it often don't know what they are talking about.
I have no agenda to push here, I think it is important to state from the off my background and hopefully you will see that this will not influence my position. I work for Full Potential and with a major running brand, use and sell their equipment on a daily basis. I have also ran and trained barefoot and tried out the products available. I spend my time dealing with real runners, the one's who have jobs, children, want to run a race and come from all sorts of backgrounds, from sub 3 hour marathons to one hour 5k.
The barefoot running debate was really ignited by Christopher McDougall and he is the figurehead in the for side of this argument. The first part of this article is a direct assault at his work. It will be followed by a guide to running barefoot. This will all be sprinkled with my own recommendations. My opinion is that there is a place for this but you have to be careful.
All any runner wants to do is to run injury free, unfortunately running shoes can't provide this unequivocally, but barefoot running may not be able to either.
The big myth that needs to be busted is that roads have created an impossible situation to run barefoot in. However, our ancestors ran barefoot over all African Savanna and that is as firm as the asphalt we have all over our countryside. Yes there are more used needles and glass bottles on the streets of England than the grasslands have but the roads aren't littered with them!
Onto McDougall. A massive problem I have with him is the incredible use of emotive language in both his book and his website. "we watching one of the most harmful myths in human performance explode before our eyes", "(running shoe companies have shoes) designed to scare you into believing you need some kind of correction." "The entire, multi-billion dollar industry (running shoes) is based on a campaign not of facts, but of fear. Fear that if you don't buy a $175 sneaker and replace it in three months, you'll ruin your knees" I don't believe this is true at all. In an interview with runcolo.com he says "its important to be forceful". McDougall plays the same game of which he accuses the running companies of engaging in, scaring your customers/readers into adopting your way of thinking. Whilst I agree with him that running companies have been loading gimmicks into shoes, but these tend to be in the higher cost running shoes.
McDougall makes the following argument when talking about the 'pseudo-science' of running shoes (applied to swimming) "If you drop a kid in the pool and he sinks, you don't say he has poor biomechanics and it doomed to wear floaties (arm-bands) the rest of his life. You fish him out, then teach him a proper stroke." I have a few problems with this argument. I will clarify that McDougall believes that running injuries come from poor technique, and there is nothing inherently wrong with our bodies and we can correct it with an improvement in our technique. The swimming analogy is wrong. When you are a child (aged 4 up) you are able to run. You don't fall over when you start running. We have no occasion to teach them because their is nothing to teach. 'A-ha' McDougall would say, but we do. Our bodies have developed poor running technique and so if that is retaught we won't injure ourselves. The issue is that to reteach technique it will not happen overnight, our bodies have adjusted to a 21st century lifestyle of shoes, shoes and more shoes (some of the items of footwear women slot their feet into borders on masochistic). I feel that barefoot running should be seen as a solution if you are experiencing lots of injuries and have been put through the dishwasher of physio's, podiatrists and shoe stores but caution needs to be exercised.
"no data on running injuries exists prior to the creation of the modern super structured running shoes in the 1970's."
He goes on to say we now have lots of data on running injuries, and the 1970's was when running shoe companies began their assault on the human foot.
"no data on caloric expenditure exists prior to the beginning of the 20th Century"
I am glad we have established that. What McDougall actually says in his book is nothing, just because data doesn't exists doesn't mean things don't exist. On this point the running community in the 1970's was very different to what it is now. To say injuries didn't exists is ludicrous, but there were less runners running and less naturally talented runners. As an example, the first New York Marathon, the slowest time was 5h:10m. In 2009 5 people took over 9hours to complete their marathon. According to www.dailyrunningtips.com "The average marathon finishing time in US in 2009 is 4 hours 29 minutes. (according to marathon guide)
The average marathon finishing time for men in 2007 stood at 4 hours 26 minutes while for women was 4 hours 59 minutes"
The averages are getting slower. Are we getting worse at running. Probably not, are more people running....yes! My argument is that back in the 1970's the runners were physically fit athletes with exceptional body conditioning. They were able to wear these thinner shoes because their bodies were adapt at midfoot striking and able to handle the up forces from the ground in the correct areas. I think is safe to say that running shoes have, in part, encouraged more people; the slightly overweight 35 year old with a 9-5 job and two hours of commuting to fit is in a different situation to the runner of the 1970's. They will not only be running the marathon slower than most of our runners in the 1970's but they won't be in great shape.
"Kenyan's and Ethiopians run thousands of miles in bare feet before ever strapping on their first pair of shoes". That is excellent, but my same runner who has not done that for years and has in fact been wearing stiff shoes to work day and night. His foot has adapted, but in a lazy way. Jeff Pisciotta, Nike Sports Research Lab, says "we found pockets of people all over the globe who are still running barefoot". Again, this is fine and this certainly makes the argument for barefoot running legitimate, and I think that it is, but not for everyone. McDougall attempts to paint everyone with the same brush, what works for me must work for everyone else. Human's have evolved and our lifestyles have a big part to play in this. This is where the barefoot argument falls down, and to a degree the running technique one. To teach new technique requires training. To do this a commitment of a lot of time. Not everyone is blessed with this time. Other commitments have to be met, and when it's time to run people want to get out their and do what is natural for them. 'Natural for them' may involve being in shoes, and so if that is the case those shoes need to be correct for their feet.
McDougall says "If a shoes salesman talks to you about 'heel to toe' transition, or says a rear foot landing is just fine, politely invite him to demonstrate a heel landing in his bare foot. If he's foolish enough to try it once, he won't try it twice." This is just incorrect. Part of my job involves using a footscan, a pressure plate that people run over barefoot. From the thousands which I have done, around 70% people have landed on their heel, the other 30% have used a midfoot or forefoot strike. I have evidence to prove this. He is just wrong with that assumption. This is the problem with 'encouraging' people to barefoot run. You will injure yourself if you heel strike barefoot but you may not be able to help it because your body has adjusted to this way of foot-striking.
"The secret to injury free running is skill which can only be developed by barefoot running" Christopher McDougall.
"I've twice snapped my little toes (in Fivefingers)....there is no greater pain-per-square-inch than smashing the tar out of your pinkie: Christopher McDougall
The reality, you can get injured, whatever equipment you use to run. You are not immortal because you have freed yourseelf from the schakles of running shoes. His injury sounds pretty terrible.
"Shoes and othotics do not align the locomotor system in a major way." Dr. Benno Nigg. They do align them in some way. This minor alignment is what makes the difference. The number of runners who I have given a mild stability shoe too because of their poor gait alignment, and who similarly have complained of shin splints or ITB pain and the shoes have solved this problem, is countless. So shoes work for some, just as barefoot running may work for others.
Another problem I have with Christopher McDougall is his delivery of facts. "Once gimmicks take over and technique is scuttled,you can expect up to 90% of all runners to become injured" "Up to eight out of ten runners are injured every year", Every year, anywhere from 65 to 80 percent of all runners suffer an injury, that's nearly every runner, every year. I would like to thank Greg Crowther for doing the legwork on this counter to McDougall. Not only should it show McDougall's love of the embellishment but his desire to let the facts be distorted. A few questions. What is his data size, big or small? How do barefoot and shoes runners define pains? Will a barefoot runner be prouder and not answer to having an injury? Are they everyday pains or one's that stop you running?
McDougall references a 2009 review for the British Journal of Sports Medicine, and in it researchers searched 30 years of studies and were unable to find one demonstrating that running shoes make people less prone to injury. However Richards et al. could not even find a single stuffy that quantified the impact (if any) of shoe use on injury rates. There was no evidence that shoes were harmful either. (Greg Crowther)
I believe that running shoes have allowed more people to run, but the cost is that you are not in tune with your body, and that is a bad thing. You are able to push yourself further and perhaps that has caused more injuries. However, by moving into barefoot running you are not going to be run near the distances you are running before to begin with. Yet McDougall would counter this by referencing a reporter from the New York Times who had "no trouble handling a 6 mile run in bare feet on asphalt the first time he tried" - the kicker here is that tis reporter used to be a college track runner. His body is experienced in mid foot striking, he has done the adaption work before hand so I am not surprised this has made his first barefoot run so seamless. I again go to the first time marathon runner who has never run before and wears heels or stiff work shoes. They don't have the same athletic background. As a side point here, barefoot running should be a choice but it needs teaching. To be taught proper technique you need to a coach, and unless you video yourself running you won't be able to see what you are doing and correct poor technique. There is very little of this 'training' available, and a lot of runners want to run a race in 16 weeks time and getting them training correctly for that is enough of a battle without bringing a technique overhaul into the equation.
McDougall's ace in the hole is Dr. Lieberman's study in Nature magazine, in which he found that "collision forces when you heel strike in shoes are three times great than when you forefoot strike in bare feet" Again this has been constructed, in my mind, to appear misleading. If you forefoot strike in shoes then results are the same, much as if you heel strike barefoot. It's not the item of footwear but the position of footstrike. Barefoot runners now sharpen their swords and come in for the attack: you CAN'T forefoot strike in shoes because you need to dorsiflex to get the clearance of the thick heel over the ground. (you need to point you feet up to be able to swing the foot forward over the large heel unit in trainers)! This is where the argument gets interesting. There are now a couple of brands who are offering a shoe which is designed to encourage you to forefoot strike whilst allowing you to heel strike also (by offering support) as you learn to midfoot strike. At over £120 they hardly inspire the free yourself from the strains of a capitalist society movement, but they may be useful for runners looking to improve their technique and develop their running style. You still need checking to make sure what you are doing isn't going to cause more damage.
To run barefoot is to run with a 'better' technique.
To achieve this technique you need time and training.
This is a commodity most runners don't have.
Our lifestyles are very different from those of our ancestors, but this doesn't mean barefoot running isn't a possibility.
I believe midfoot striking has its place and runners looking to push on with their running should be exploring this path further. If you are struggling with injuries then perhaps a move to barefoot running or a barefoot technique would help.
Starting out barefoot is a slightly different prospect but here is some advice (from barefootted.com - you will know him if you have read Born to Run)
1. Start by walking outside barefoot, getting used to having no shoes on
2. Do not make your first run long, keep it short
3. Focus on a gentle, quiet, forefoot landing, keeping you footstike smooth
4. Take shorter strides, thus increasing your cadence
5. Have a upright posture, a balanced head with an engaged core.
6. Use firmer surfaces like asphalt,not soft ground like grass (it encourages heel striking by being softer)
Those are some basic tips, do look on google and youtube for more videos on the subject. If you have any questions on barefoot running, midfoot striking or the shoes involved please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.