Sunday, March 21, 2010 was a big day for runners around the world, and the big news was not that the Pamakid Runners had 29 runners racing in the Across the Bay 12K.
In Portugal Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese set a new World Record for the half marathon, running 58 minutes, 23 seconds at the Lisbon Half Marathon. This bettered the old record of 58:33 set by Samuel Wanjiru in 2007. It also sets the wheels in motion for a great match-up between Tadese and Wanjiru over the marathon distance sometime in the near future. Tadese also set the world 20K record en route to the half marathon, passing 20K in 55:21, 27 seconds faster than Haile Gebrselassie’s previous record. At the 15K mark of the race Tadese’s split was 41:33, just four seconds short of yet another world record.
Tadese is a name to remember. The twenty-eight year old has an accomplished past and it appears the best may still lie ahead of him.Tadese was the 10,000 meter silver medalist at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin last summer. On the night
that he won Eritrea’s first ever medal in World Championship history, Malinda and I found ourselves on the same subway as an Eritrean family. They had their Eritrean flag and were clearly excited by Tadese’s accomplishment. Their little boy asked who was on the button I had on my backpack (it was a photo button of Shannon Rowbury). I gave both the children a lapel pin and in exchange, when the family got off the subway, the mom handed us a flyer for their Eritrean restaurant in Berlin. A few nights later we had Eritrean food for dinner.
In New York Haile Gebrselassie, the man known as “The King,” raced the New York City Half Marathon. It was an all-around bad day for him. First he lost his 20K world record to Tadese, and then in his race he abruptly dropped out at the eight mile mark. He was battling Kenya’s Peter Kamais for the lead when he suddenly stopped and appeared to grab at his chest. He began running again and it appeared that he might get back in the race, but he soon stopped for good and entered a medical tent. Returning to his hotel he told a New York Road Runners staff member that he was suffering from asthma, which flared up by the dust kicked up in the city streets, possibly by a lead vehicle.
Even the greats can have a subpar day, but in Gebrselassie’s case this is his second straight race affected by a health issue. Back in January at the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon Gebrselassie did not come close to his own marathon world record, instead he had to battle two fellow Ethiopians just to get the win, which he did in 2:06:09, three minutes slower than his world record time. After the race he reported that he had slept wrong and was suffering from back pains.
In the women’s New York City Half Marathon Deena Kastor went out aggressively, building a 30-second lead over Great Britain’s Mara Yamauchi. Her 10K split of 32:30 was well under course record pace. Less than two miles from the finish Yamauchi passed Kastor to take the win in a course record time of 1:09:25. Kastor finished second in 1:09:43, just two seconds ahead of Madai Perez in third. This result sets up an intriguing re-match on April 25 as both Kastor and Yamauchi are entered in the London Marathon.
In Rome, at the Rome Marathon, the men’s marathon featured an interesting finish. Ethiopian Siraj Gena kicked off his shoes with about 500 meters left in the race and sprinted barefoot across the finish line to win the race in 2:08:39. Some reports indicate that he kicked by Kenyan runners Benson Barus and Nixon Machichim, but the results seem to indicate that he finished twenty seconds ahead of them, so it is unclear if he really kicked past them while barefoot. Gena was paying homage to Ethiopian Abebe Bikila who fifty years ago won the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome while running the entire course without shoes. There are rumors that the barefoot finish to honor Bikila was set-up by race officials, who offered a 5,000 euro bonus to the winner if they pulled of their shoes and won the race without shoes on. In any case, it added one more interesting story to what was an interesting day on the international running scene.
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.
- Brooks CEO Addresses Barefoot Running
- Brooks Shoes 25pg PDF On Why You Shouldn’t Run Barefoot And Run In Their Shoes
- LA Times: Runners are baring their very soles
- Mark Plaatjes’ Facebook Note: A Commentary on Barefoot/Minimalist Running
- New Yorker: Sole Survivor – about Czech shoe expert Petr Hlavacek and the shoes that were found on a Stone Age man frozen in a glacier (2005)
- Nike Makes Barefoot Breakthrough (2005)
- NY Times: Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants
- Science Of Sport’s Take On Harvard Study
- Steve Magness On Barefoot Running
- WebMD On The Latest Research On Barefoot Running