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The Barefoot Running Debate

Posted in Training Thoughts by Andy Chan on February 15, 2010
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George in his Vibram FiveFingers

 

Interest in barefoot running has been gradually building momentum in the last year. Pamakid runner George Rehmet began coming to track workouts wearing the Vibram FiveFingers sometime last spring. The book, Born To Run by Christopher McDougall, which was released in May 2009 and climbed to #19 on the New York Times Best Seller list in late November 2009 added to the movement. Then in late-January 2010 barefoot running was front page news when Harvard researcher, Daniel Lieberman’s paper on the foot strike patterns of barefoot versus shod runners was printed in Nature magazine. 

 

I am not an expert on the topic but barefoot running has garnered enough attention lately that I would feel remiss if I did not share some thoughts on the shoe versus barefoot running debate. 

In Born to Run, the Tarahumara Indians run incredible distances wearing only tire-tread huaraches (something akin to a sandal). One of the more memorable characters is “Barefoot Ted,” Ted McDonald in real life, who runs ultra marathons barefoot. The book has a whole chapter that pretty much blames running injuries on shoes; claiming that 65-80 percent of runners will suffer an injury every year. 

The main anti-shoe sentiment is that for ten thousand years people ran without shoes. Lack of shoes was not a problem and the high-tech running shoes that first began to appear in the 1970’s are trying to fix a problem that doesn’t need fixing. McDougall argues that shoes, by providing support, are shielding the foot from its natural job, which is to flex, spread, splay, and grip the surface upon which it is landing. The unshod foot has a greater range of motion and it distributes the forces generated from the landing throughout the foot. A foot inside a shoe is really just going along for the ride and does none of the flexing, spreading, splaying and gripping. 

The book mentions David Smyntek who took his research to the extreme. When his shoes wore out on the outside, he started wearing the shoes on the wrong foot. For ten years he ran five miles a day with wrong-footed shoes on and had no injuries. This led him to question the need for shoes – if you can get by using shoes in a way that they weren’t designed to be used, maybe the design isn’t all that good in the first place? 

Lieberman’s paper, “Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners” (Lieberman et al., Nature, 463: 531-565), in simplistic terms tested and confirmed that barefoot runners tend to land on their forefoot or midfoot and shod runners tend to land on their heel (rearfoot strike). This is logical, since it would hurt a lot to land on the heel when running barefoot, but by wearing shoes, the bottom of your foot is cushioned and you can land on your heel without causing undue pain. The paper goes on to make the assertion that landing on the forefoot or midfoot (as in barefoot running) may protect the feet and legs from some of the impact-related injuries. It must be noted that Vibram, the company that makes the “barefoot shoe,” helped fund the research. You can read Lieberman’s paper, browse through the Harvard barefoot running website, or watch a six minute video on You Tube that hits the highlights

I found two quotes from Lieberman that illustrate how controversial the topic is. 

In the book, Born to Run, he’s quoted as saying: 

“A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.” 

And yet on the Harvard barefoot running webpage he has this disclaimer regarding the scientific research published in Nature

Please note that we present no data or opinions on how people should run, whether shoes cause some injuries, or whether barefoot running causes other kinds of injuries. 

Counter to the arguments from pro-barefoot runners are ideas from Kevin Kirby, a podiatrist, that were in an article in the February 2010 edition of Runners’ World. Kirby argues that shoes can cause injuries, for example blisters and black toe nails. But that isn’t really what’s being discussed, we’re talking about overuse and impact injuries like shin splints, stress fractures, and the –itises (tendinitis, plantar fasciitis). Kirby does agree that running barefoot can make you faster because you are carrying less weight when you are running barefoot than when you are wearing shoes (approximately eight to twelve ounces per shoe). He adds that the risk of a serious injury to a vital foot structure on the bottom of the foot from barefoot running such as puncture wounds, infections and lacerations may outweigh any benefits of barefoot running.   

Where do I stand on all this? Firmly in the middle: wearing a shoe on my left foot and barefoot on the right. I believe there may be some benefits to running barefoot. However transitioning from shod to unshod running takes a long, gradual and careful build-up. If you are interested in trying barefoot running, you will need somewhere soft to run at first (ideally a grass field). I suggest stating off by running a couple laps on the grass. Then increase by adding striders on the grass and then later add cool-downs. It will take a lot of patience and motivation to gradually increase the amount of running that you do barefoot. But most importantly, it will take a solid belief that the benefits are worth it. Otherwise, why take the time and energy to change what you are doing if you are not having injury problems? 

To read even more about this hot topic, I give you more links on barefoot running. 

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One Response to 'The Barefoot Running Debate'

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  1. George Rehmet said,

    Andy,

    A very balanced and informative article. Where do I stand on this? I view barefoot running as a tool to improve my running form and to work my foot and lower leg muscles. So I’ll go barefoot or wear Vibram Five Fingers about 20% of my running.

    I’ve noticed that I’m still able to maintain race times in my 40s and have been able to better avoid injuries. My running shoes tend to be minimal and I prefer Newtons with the lugs under the forefoot to help remind where to land.

    I agree with Andy is to see where you are at. When I took up barefoot running, I was hurting and I felt my race times had plateaued. Again, I made changes in my running by adding barefoot running, form drills, and a significant increase in mileage. So do the the research which Andy superbly provided, but don’t view barefoot running as the ONLY silver bullet to improve running – you still got to do the other stuff.


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