The Barefoot & Minimalist Running Debate – A Plea for Moderation

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I’ve spent the past two days (!) reading through threads on barefoot running and the dangers of running in Vibram Fivefingers at the Podiatry Arena (thanks to a reader for pointing this out to me), and I can’t help but come away frustrated by the level of animosity between the medical podiatry and barefoot running communities. There seems to be such a level of disdain of each group for the other (this is not universal, but it is clearly there if you read through these posts and those by people like Christopher McDougall and some on the barefoot running sites) that it in many cases precludes a thoughtful and balanced discussion of the topic. I consider myself to straddle the middle ground on this issue – I’ve tried running barefoot and it’s not for me, but I also believe in the benefits of minimalist running shoes based on my own personal, and yes, anecdotal experience. As an academic myself, I agree strongly that claims made by either side need to be backed up by good science, and a lot of the debate right now could be quashed if we just admitted that the science showing that either barefoot or shod running is better from an injury prevention or performance standpoint just isn’t there yet.

I thought I’d hone in on a few of the points that keep coming up in the debate between these two sides, and add in some of my thoughts.

1. The “It’s a Fad” Argument. I repeatedly see barefoot running being called a fad practiced by a small minority of runners that will eventually “fade away.” Based on my experience, I would tend to agree that barefoot running is not a widespread practice in the running community (I filmed over 975 runners at the Manchester Marathon last Fall, and not one was barefoot, nor did I see a single barefoot runner in a 5K with several thousand runners last night in my hometown), but I fail to see why this relative rarity is pertinent to the debate on the merits of barefoot running? It seems like this argument is brought up moreso in the context of marginalizing and isolating barefoot runners more than anything else.

Although there may not be a lot of people running barefoot as a percentage of the total running population, some are, and the level of interest in both barefoot and minimalist running is high right now (I can attest to this personally based on the level of traffic my posts on the subject bring to this blog), probably thanks to media attention associated with the publication of Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” and Daniel Lieberman’s recent paper in Nature. Dismissing barefoot running as a fad that will “fade away” ignores the fact that a least some people want to try it, and should be advised how to do it carefully so that they don’t get hurt (and some in the medical profession have done this very well).

2. Mutual Disrespect. On the one hand, the podiatrists on the “barefoot running” thread repeatedly say they have nothing against barefoot running if done correctly, then in the next breath some of them refer to barefoot runners as “nutters,” then hedge by pointing out that some are more reasonable than others. One commenter went so far as to mock Daniel Lieberman for only being able to run the London Marathon at a 10:41 pace, and called it “not a very good advertisement for Vibram Fivefingers.” Mocking fellow academic researchers for not being able to hang with elite runners is just plain unprofessional, and quite frankly, borderline offensive. Critically analyzing Lieberman’s research on its scientific merits is fine, but attacking him personally based on a race time is bad form.

Similarly, I don’t view it as helpful when barefoot runners hammer on podiatrists as peddling garbage and snake-oil that. I don’t view any of this as helpful since it only reinforces the animosity between these two camps. Thoughtful and respectful discussion would go a long way to helping move along the science behind this debate – lets stop with the mutual hating on each other (is that too strong a word?).

3. The “Minimalist is Nothing New” Argument. I repeatedly see long-time runners commenting that the recent barefoot/minimalist running trend/resurgence is “nothing new” and that they were running in minimalist shoes back in the 1960′s and early 1970′s because that’s all they had to wear back then. I’m not sure what this rather annoying argument accomplishes other than to make those making it take on an air of superiority relative to those of us who don’t have the good fortune to have been running for decades.

I doubt many would disagree with the statement that shoes in the 60′s and 70′s were a lot like today’s so-called “minimalist shoes”, but the reality is that a lot of runners out there today weren’t running in the 60′s and 70′s, and have only been exposed to running in pronation controlled shoes with a large heel. The idea of running in a “minimalist” shoe is new to this population of runners (myself included – I’ve run off-and-on most of my life, but regularly and fanatically for only about 3 years), and many are fearful of the consequences of moving away from shoes that they have been told that they need to wear by supposedly more knowledgeable running store clerks and running publications. I’m no different – I was put in stability shoes when I first started running, and it was something of a leap of faith when I started running in Nike Free 3.0′s, and then in the Vibram Fiivefingers. Thankfully, I have had a very positive experience moving toward lighter, less-supportive running footwear, and have not been bitten by the injury bug (although I’ve probably now jinxed myself by saying that). I had no idea that lightweight trainers and racing flats were a possibility. I wasn’t running back in the 60′s and early 70′s (I wasn’t even born yet), so the idea was new to me, regardless of how old it might be to some who have been running for 30-40 years.

4. Today’s Runner “Prefers/Chooses” Cushioned Shoes. A related point that follows off of the previous one is that I’ve seen it suggested that the fact that runners seem to prefer and gravitate toward cushioned, thicker soled running shoes is evidence of their utility/benefit. Is it not equally possible that these shoes are so prevalent because they are the ones being advertised and marketed heavily and are the predominant type of running shoe carried by shoe stores? I don’t know about you, but I have a very hard time finding racing flats in most generalist shoe stores (e.g., Foot Locker, Dick’s, etc.), and generally have to order them on-line. Given this, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a relatively new or casual runner might not even know that minimalist shoes exist as an option. Furthermore, at almost any store you are at the mercy of the clerk who helps you, and expertise among employees is highly variable. Lets not also forget that a large number of runners probably still choose shoes more for aesthetic reasons than any structural design features that they might possess, and that effective marketing often carries the day when it comes to shoe choice.

5. Abebe Bikila. Almost every time I see the isolated yet impressive example of Abebe Bikila brought up in the shod vs. barefoot debate it follows a predictable course:

a. Barefoot runner points out that Bikila won the Olympic Marathon in 1960 running barefoot, using it as evidence to show that a runner can compete at the highest levels without shoes.

b. Shod running proponent points out that he won it again in 1964 wearing shoes, and ran a considerably faster time, suggesting that wearing shoes made him faster.

The fact that Bikila won a marathon running barefoot doesn’t mean that everyone will be able to run faster if they throw their shoes away – we are all different, and what works for one may not work for others. Similarly, that fact that Bikila ran faster with shoes on in 1964 cannot be conclusively attributed to his wearing shoes (and this point was made, but seemingly never addressed, in that thread). Perhaps he was just a better runner in 1964 with four years of additional experience and a previous Olympic Marathon win under his belt. Maybe the course in Tokyo was faster than the course in Rome, maybe Bikila was pushed harder by his competitors, perhaps his pre-race preparation or in race fueling/hydration was better, or maybe the weather was more conducive to a fast race in 1964 (I have no idea on these points, I’m just throwing them out as possibilities). Perhaps his time would have been even faster if he was barefoot again in 1964. Point is, there are other variables besides the presence of shoes that could potentially explain his faster time in 1964. We can’t know most of these things now, so I wish people would stop trying to make too much out of the Bikila example.

6. Barefoot Running and Speed. Following off the Bikila point, another frequent point of argument is whether barefoot running actually makes you run faster or slower. Less weight on the foot should reduce the metabolic cost of running, yet we still don’t see elites running and/or winning races barefoot. This suggests that there are other factors that come into play when thinking about the relationship between footwear and speed.

For me, having tried running barefoot on asphalt a few times, I can attest that I run much slower when barefoot. In large part, this is because I have to constantly be on the lookout for debris that I might step on. Contrary to what people like Christopher McDougall might say, I have found that there is a lot of debris on the road and sidewalk, even if it’s just gravel and small stones. Stepping on a pebble when running barefoot hurts. Maybe my feet could toughen up to resist the pain, but quite frankly, I don’t want to invest the time running barefoot and feeling the pain simply to toughen up my feet to the point where it becomes less painful. Wearing shoes, even if minimalist, allows me to focus on running fast, and removes my need to constantly scan the ground for the next pebble that might send shooting pain through the sole of my foot. This is reason #1 why I have not enjoyed my barefoot running experiences.

7. Bias. Yes, Daniel Lieberman’s research is sponsored by Vibram. Yes, minimalist runners make money by promoting certain shoes (I advertise some of them on this site, and openly display my sponsorship via the BrooksID program). Yes, podiatrists make money in some cases by treating running injuries and prescribing orthotics. Yes, running magazines probably make good money from advertising dollars coming from shoe manufacturers. We all have our biases, and few of us are any less guilty of it than anyone else.

8. Anecdotes. One of my major problems with both sides in this debate is the reliance on anecdote to support claims. There’s an entire thread on the Podiatry Arena board attacking the Vibram Fivefingers shoes, and it essentially consists of individuals mining the internet for examples of people who have suffered stress fractures by running in the Fivefingers. If you look at barefoot running forums, you’ll probably find just as many anecdotes of people who have regained the ability to run pain-free either barefoot or in more minimalist shoes like the Fivefingers.

Yes, people can and do get hurt running in the Vibram Fivefingers. In many cases, this is simply because they do too much too soon (i.e., a poor training strategy and not necessarily the fault of the shoes) and don’t give their legs and feet proper time to adjust to the new forces being placed upon them. I’d venture to guess that if you spent a few hours on Google, you could find just as many people claiming to have had negative experiences in more traditional running shoes (how many runners do you know who wear regular running shoes and get injured each year – I suspect quite a lot). You could probably also do the same for people who claim injury due to custom orthotics. I suspect that some number of people will get injured no matter what they put on their feet (or don’t put on their feet for that matter), many of these due to poor training choices (speculating here), and many due to real anatomical/biomechanical problems. Until there are studies looking at injury rates in different shoe types, I don’t see these anecdotes as being helpful one way or the other.

At the end of the day, and given where the science currently stands, my take is this – wear what works for you. If you are wearing shoes and you like them, the data aren’t there to tell you to stop. If you are running in Vibram Fivefingers or barefoot and have not had any problems, there’s no evidence telling you that you should stop. The important point is to run, and enjoy the health benefits that it provides.

I probably will have more thoughts to come on this topic, but to avoid this becoming a dissertation length post, I’ll stop here for now and add an additional post if I feel the need to.

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. can anyone direct me to studies that explain why heeled shoes were made in the first place?

    • Pete Larson says:

      Heeled shoes extend back centuries – Mongols used them to lock the feet into stirrups, royalty wore them to increase stature, people wore them to raise the feet above slush and excrement in the street. Heels were raised on shoes in the early seventies in part to ease strain on the Achilles tendon, but that created instability leading to the idea that pronation causes knee problems. Next came pronation control. New technology added to correct for side effects of other new technology so to speak.

      • Igormintz says:

        i’m asking because i heard something about the shoe industry adding the cushioned heels after measuring vibrations going through the legs at foot strike. have you heard something about it?

        • Pete Larson says:

          There are a number of studies like that, but to my knowledge most of them have occurred well after the heel was added to running shoes.

  2. “I’ve spent the past two days (!)…” Surely you must have diapers to change or something… ;)

    • Pete Larson says:

      To be honest, most of my reading of those threads occurred between baby duty
      stretches from 11:30 to 1:30 at night! So more appropriately I should have
      said most of the last two late nights.

      Pete

  3. Greg Anderson says:

    Ah, yes, a refreshing scientific approach by a fellow academic! Thanks for an even-handed review of the arguments.

    A couple of points I would add:

    1. Many people seem to think barefoot running is all about the feet, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Barefoot running is about allowing your feet to receive feedback so that you can improve your overall running form. I’m trying barefoot, not because I like getting my feet dirty, but because my legs absolutely LOVE it.

    2. As a political scientist, I am always a little biased toward following the money trail. One doesn’t have to be a politician to support whichever view puts money in his or her pocket. I expect most (though not all) podiatrists to do everything they can to sell orthotics. I expect Chris McDougall to do everything he can to sell books. You can expect me to try to spend as little as necessary on running shoes. :)

    • Pete Larson says:

      Greg,

      Thanks for the comment! I have definitely felt my stride change lately, but
      I have no idea if it’s a good or bad thing – shorter with a higher cadence.
      It’s sometimes easy to forget that there’s more to it than just the feet. As
      far as the money, it would be nice if money never figured into the equation,
      but unfortunately I think that’s a bit naive. We’re all probably guilty of
      it to a certain extent, and like you, I’m all about paying as little for
      shoes as possible.

      Pete

  4. runningforlife says:

    in human evolutionary terms, one must understand it took homo sapiens millions of years to evolve and generate our body structure WITHOUT man made heeled shoes, if anything, our ancestors used dandles. so please throw away your nike shoes with heels and start running barefoot or with zero drop heeled shoes. start slow, run 200 meters, gradually run more and more until your ankles, calves and other essential parts of your legs and joints get use to the correct way to run, gosh i despise Nike for screwing up our bodies for over 30 years.

    Regards

    Tommy from http://www.skyhighhobby.com

  5. Greg Strosaker says:

    Pete – nice balanced perspective. I saw this post the other day and immediately thought of yours; another balanced view on barefoot running from a less scientific perspective, but a good general guide for beginners. I originally thought I’d never experiment with barefoot but am now starting to feel some temptation. link to zenhabits.net

  6. Kyle Norman says:

    Michael,

    I just found your blog and it looks great. I commend you for offering a sober appraisal of the shod vs. unshod/minimal shoe debate. The pendulum tends to swing too far in these situations.

    I’m not sure if you’re familiar w/the Science of Sport (http://www.sportsscientists.com) but they’ve done a very thorough, even-handed discussion of the issue. You can look here (http://www.sportsscientists.co… for that discussion and a lot more on all things running-related.

    Thanks,
    Kyle Norman
    http://www.DenverFitnessJournal.com

    • Pete Larson says:

      Kyle,

      Thanks for your kind words! Yes, I’ve been reading Science of Sport for
      awhile now – they do a great job. I was very impressed with their book, The
      Runner’s Body as well. It’s nice to see good science being applied to
      running!

      Pete

  7. I would like to reiterate what the other people have been saying in their comments. This is a great post that cuts through all of the overly emotional ranting that goes on about this subject. Personally I think the minimalist and barefoot runners make the better and more informed arguments, but people on both sides tend to overstate their cases.

  8. come on, its as simple as we weren’t born with shoes on.  It will take time to get used to running barefoot if you haven’t been.  if u can get used to minimal type wear, and take care of your feet and your body, then u will do fine.

    its not about running the fastest in these vibrams for one.  The human is capable of endurance running far greater than other mammals thanks to our build especially our lungs.  Get stronger feet and legs by running with minimal add-ons, and be prepared to run farther than you ever have before.  it. takes. time.

  9. FREDERIC BROSSARD says:

    Very interesting article. I fully share your point of view. As the main writer for http://www.wanarun.net, I have the chance to give a trial to many shoes, including minimalists.
    I started to wear Vibram FF one week ago and had a first 13km run at 13.2 km/h : great ! effortless compared to the same run with shoes …
    Then I tried 2×5 minutes at 16 km/h (which is 90% of my Max Speed) : well, well, well, not that good, difficult to keep the pace …
    So I guess that these Vibram can be good for something but not for all the running aspects.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Frederic,

      I also try many shoes, so I tend to mix up footwear quite a lot – I actually
      find a lot of benefit to the variety. At this point, I use the Vibrams on
      runs about once a week, and sometimes as a walk around the house shoe.

      Pete

  10. Fat boy roy says:

    Nice post. I couldn’t agree more.

    The thing that really does my head in is running shoe companies “updating” their shoes. I ran for many years in the Brooks Glycerin without injury until version 8 came out. My friend (who has been running for 30 years) joked that when a shoe wins a Runners World award it is best avoided. Sure enough the Glycerin 8 gave me Achilles pain in both legs for the first time ever.
    There are many similar stories around the net of the form
    “I loved version 4 of shoe X but version 5 was completly different and caused pain.”.

    Unfortunately for me I haven’t found a suitable replacement yet because it took me years of trying different shoes to find the Glycerin.

    • Pete Larson says:

      My tactic has been to rotate several different style shoes continuously on
      every run (Brooks Launch down to Vibrams), that way my legs don’t get too
      adjusted to any one pair, and with the hope that they’ll adapt more quickly
      when I add something new to the mix. This also helps me to justify my
      running shoe addiciton :)

      Pete

  11. I can still wear whatever I want, right? Whether I run in huaraches, Vibrams, Luna sandals or shoes, all that matters is what’s most comfortable to ME.

    I’m not an elite runner and will never be one. Speed doesn’t mean shit to me. Enjoying running injury-free does. A combo of barefoot and Vibram running does that for me.

  12. I like the conclusion of this article.  I’ve been running on and off all of my life, but got pretty serious again about seven years ago while very overweight.  Because of my weight (I’m still near 200 pounds, though I’m about 80 pounds less than I was), I figured I needed very padded shoes. I have been pretty fortunate in terms of not getting a lot of injuries, but I did have a problem with rolling my left ankle.  I started moving toward less shoe thinking if I was lower to the ground, I’d be less likely to roll. It seems to help and I haven’t had other injuries pop up, so I’m sticking with it.

  13. There’s a guy who ran the rome marathon barefoot in 2010 barefoot, he won in a 2:08. So, there is an elite running barefoot. But, I do agree with this article that there needs to be such a tension between the two groups. Because it bugs me when I run barefoot, and people shout at me “that’s bad for you”. Yet somehow i’ve been running this way for a year with no injuries.

  14. Ken Skier says:

    You make excellent points in your post.

    The barefoot vs. traditional running discussion (argument?) reminds me of the heated, often ad-hominem discussions between Mac and PC users in the first 10 years or so of the Mac. My feeling, then and now, is: use what works for you. Don’t insist that one approach is “Right” and the other clearly “Wrong.”

    I started running five years ago, and after a year of injuries I thought through the physics and decided that a forefoot strike would be less injurious than a heel-strike, so I relentlessly reprogrammed my brain over a period of a month or so, until I became a forefoot-striker. Far fewer injuries since then!

    I’ve run barefoot and absolutely love it, especially on asphalt…but cannot do that on trails or in winter, so I’m not a full-time barefooter by any means. My real goal is not barefoot running, but what I call “Low-Impact Running.” I want to run in a way that will transmit the least impact to my knees, hip, and back. That might be barefoot, or it might be minimalist…I don’t care. I just want to figure out what works for me.

    –Ken Skier
    kenskier@alum.mit.edu
    http://runwithKen.com

    • Pete Larson says:

      Ken,

      The Mac vs. PC analogy is a great one – both work for some people, and maybe
      each as better at some subset of things, and worse at others. Although I
      tend to prefer lightweight, less-supportive shoes, I still on rare occasions
      run in something heavier, and I’ve found that the variability seems to have
      positive benefits for me.

      Pete

      • plumpjogger97 says:

        I’ve tried both. Running with Macs is great and they look great too, but they are expensive and there are some places they just don’t go. PCs are cheap and support running pretty much anywhere, but occasionally they freeze up and sometimes I have to reboot.

  15. Jonathan says:

    this all assumes the person is wearing the correct shoe size in any given brand of shoe (or style within that brand).  i find a majority of people, say even 90% are in the wrong shoe size.  that comes from 65 years of family shoe store experience, and properly fitting shoes.  

  16. Tracey Kite says:

    Great post! I have been running for a couple years now and have been strictly a shoe runner. I have continually suffered from shin splints, runner’s knee, and now a stress fracture. Recently I have tried barefoot running and plan to go totally barefoot from now on. I believe that running shoes do not work for everyone just like certain brands of shoes do not work for some people. I have had no luck with shoes and have tried many brands. I do not think there is anything wrong with running in shoes and would never try and convince someone to go barefoot, I am doing it because it works for me. I think we all need to just do what works best for us and forget about the arguments and snarky remarks, but then I live in a dream world where we all get along.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Tracey,

      I’m curious – when you we’re dealing with injuries, did you mostly wear just
      one pair of shoes or did you rotate? Do you run mostly on asphalt or do you
      mix in trails?

      Pete

      • Tracey Kite says:

        Pete
        I wore just one pair of shoes, but I only ran every other day or the shin splints would get much worse. I also ran on concreat, asphalt, and trails I like to mix it up.

        Tracey

  17. Well said Pete !

    Bottom line do what right for you and don’t swallow all the religious like corporate and medical dogma out there. When I made the switch to minimalist I worked my way down gradually from running bricks to Nike free 5.0, Brooks track shoes and Vibram classics. I even took a run in Col0roado with Barefoot ken bob.

    My knees feel great and my chronic back pain has disappeared after years of physical therapy and pain killers.

  18. barefootryan says:

    the biggest key for anyone who experiences injuries while running is to throw the concept of a heel strike out the window. it causes way too much strees and impact on the legs and joints, even if the pain is masked by cushioning in all these bulky nike and asics shoes.  anyone can go minimalist. they just need to use a forefoot or midfoot strike.

  19. Great unbiased opinion Pete – my son and I have been running for a decade now and prior to going minimalist we suffered a host of injuries(hip, groin, achilles). We tried the barefoot thing, watershoes and the likes. My son suffered a toe fracture and I dealt with upper foot pain initially.

    For other readers out there – we compared the two scenarios and came to the conclusion that a middle ground was needed. We both run in Nike Free 3.0 with the heel shaved down to create a zero drop(insoles removed). Both of us can now say our running is with out a doubt much better. We suffer less joint fatigue on our long runs and are both running faster for the same training effort. In my opinion getting light, running tall and allowing the feet to move throughout their full range of motion is the key to successful running. Training is a given but you can only do that if you’re not injured. Minimalist shoes to us provide protection for our feet from sharp objects and hot roads. We are not interested in heel, arch support or pronation adjustments – that’s where working on our form comes in. Regards George

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks for adding your thoughts George! I’m very tempted to do the same with
      my Frees. You might be interested to know that the new Free Run+ 2 allows
      you to choose the Free Run upper with a 3.0 sole. Check out NikeID.com.

      Pete

  20. offrampextreme says:

    Very good post. I also don’t see why this whole discussion has to be so aggressive, but i’d guess that had to be expected from anyone who would lose money if running barefoot would seriously spread. Since it doesn’t (yet) i don’t understand the attitude. I am very slowly working towards running barefoot and if any friends think i am qualified to share an opinion on that matter, i am happy to share whatever i know. But i am not going on a crusade to make anyone i know a convert. The podiatry people can say whatever they want, it’s my choice in the end. Whoever is going barefoot and joining this discussion lashing out at anyone with a different opinion is getting his blood pressure up for no reason.

  21. Hey Pete-
    Thanks again for some great insights in this area. I recently switched to the Frees a few months ago and have been loving it, but I’m also not ready to go frolicking barefoot in the streets. I am learning, however, that my body seems to appreciate a more minimal shoe, especially after the stability bricks I was running in (despite being picked out for me at a running specialty store, another specialty store saw them recently and said I never should have been given those because I barely pronate…). I’ll still lean toward a bit more cushion for the knees on longer distances until I adapt further, but I think this, trend or not, is a great direction that people should investigate for themselves based on what feels best for their body, not what is “in.”

    That being said, running store #2 recently ordered the Green Silence for me in my size for me to try. How would you compare those to the Frees, having tried both? And is it true they’re going to release a different combo of colors?

    Thanks!!
    Julie

    • Pete Larson says:

      Julie,

      Free’s and Green Silence do feel quite different – both are light, but the
      Free’s are a lot more flexible. Green Silence feels a bit closer to the
      Ground, but it’s hard to say if that’s real or not. I just ran a race in the
      GS on Wed. and they worked great for the 5K – I also wore them for most of
      my 28.5 mile Relay for Life and the experience was positive. There are some
      new GS color schemes coming out apparently in August:
      link to facebook.com
      .

      Pete

  22. Jonniegee1965 says:

    If it (minimalistic shoes) works for me great, but it might not work for the next guy.  Sorry, but went to a Dr. with PF, was given inserts, got a stress fracture and told I was limited to 1/2 mile run.  Frustrated for 5 yrs due to pain and zero running.  Researched VFFs, bought a pair, slowly worked into them.  Results are, no more PF, no more stress fractures, and just did my first Half Marathon in Green Silences with zero pain and loved it.  My 2 cents, do what feels right and lets you run pain free.  Kind of anti Dr., because just because the guy has a degree doesn’t make him an expert on YOU.

  23. Ren Powell says:

    I am still puzzled why “faster” really is an issue in the discussion of a healthy or “right” way to run.

    There is no correlation between how fast a person runs and how perfect their body functions. We aren’t gazelle.

    I like what Michael said here in the comments: “Let’s go for a run and stop worrying so much about being right.”

    • Pete Larson says:

      I agree – speed is a secondary consideration for me. I’d much rather be able
      to run injury free, and if that means moving a little slower (for any
      reason), so be it.

  24. Anton Krupicka says  that “Minimal shoes are not a Panacea that automatically makes you a better runner, it kind of forces you to become a better runner”. I think there’s some truth in that. Same with running barefoot.

    I found McDougall’s book very compelling, but of course the science is a bit one sided. He is selling the idea, that’s his role in the whole movement, and he manages to engage people in a very importart debate IMO.

  25. Great post! You’re right, there’s far too much focus on anecdotes. Empirical research will clarify this point.

    That said, two anecdotes that illustrate a broader point:

    VFF running has worked for me; I suffered from chronic patellofemoral syndrome for 20 years, and like you have been an on and off runner most of my life. So I had no choice, really. And it’s worked perfectly: I’m running ~30 mpw, and my PFS is completely gone.

    My father-in-law grew up in a BF culture, runs in massive-heeled Nikes, is still running in his late 70s and has several marathons to his credit. And nary an injury, despite the shoes and heel-striking. No reason for him to change. He did like BTR, tho.

    So VFFs aren’t evil, and nor are high-heeled marshmallow shoes. Good evidence-based studies will uncover general trends, and my conjecture is that BF/VFF running will be shown superior in terms of injury prevention. But it’s just my conjecture, based on my experience, at this point.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Byron,

      Perfect examples – different things work for different people. Unfortunately
      for a biologist like me, variability is the norm rather than the exception -
      it’s why we have to rely on large samples and statistics!

      Pete

  26. Amanda Reagan says:

    Very well put all around. Folks should stop putting so much energy into worrying about what the runner next to them has on their feet, and put that same energy into paying attention to what keeps their OWN feet happy and comfortable. I switch it up, myself – more traditional shoes on pavement, and FiveFingers on trails (which I prefer anyway).

    Run in whichever pair of shoes makes you want to go run in them again tomorrow!

  27. Michael Blanchard says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful commentary. Personally I’m a bit tired of the debate. I suppose podiatrists can’t really opt out of the discussion, but as a barefoot runner I’m not all that interested in trying to convert people who don’t want to be converted, nor am I out to vilify anyone. Well, except possibly the shoe manufacturers who claim their shoes prevent injury and/or improve performance without really backing up those claims with evidence.

    I recently had the pleasure of meeting Julian Romero. Julian runs barefoot. He ran the LA marathon this year in just under three hours (which is actually slower than his times for that race the last few years). His brother Alex, also a barefoot runner, won the Duke City marathon in 2008 with a time of 2:40:23. Julian came in second at that race with 2:47:10. Patrick Sweeney won the Palos Verdes marathon last weekend in 2:37:14 wearing Vibram Fivefingers. He runs ultras in them, too, though not that fast. :) Are they faster because they are barefoot or minimalist? I don’t know. I know they run barefoot, and I know they run fast. Maybe not Olympic level fast, but faster than me, for sure!

    That said, most folks I know who give up their shoes don’t do it to get faster. They do it to avoid or come back from injuries, and they do it for fun.

    I have run barefoot and minimalist my entire running life, which is just now going on 8 months. In the beginning I didn’t do a lot of fully barefoot running for the same reasons as you, Peter. It was uncomfortable. But I’ve done more lately, and since May 8 have run only barefoot. Avoiding sharp things gets easier, and when I do step on them, they hurt less.

    In no particular order here, I do not believe running barefoot prevents all injuries. I believe running with proper form can help reduce the chances of injury, and running with proper form may be easier barefoot. Others run with excellent form in shoes, and more power to them. Similarly, I hope we can all concede that shoes do not prevent injuries. Well, I suppose they might prevent some superficial damage and the odd puncture wound, but I’ve never seen an injury sustained by a barefoot runner which hasn’t also been suffered by countless folks running in shoes.

    I like running barefoot. It’s fun. It feels good. If you feel the same way about running in shoes, great! Let’s go for a run and stop worrying so much about being right.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Michael,

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comment – I always appreciate your moderate
      approach to barefooting. I’d like to think that most people agree with us
      that running in whatever form works best is the most important thing, and
      there are many ways to do it successfully, but unfortunately there are some
      very vocal people on each side of the debate that have more extreme views,
      and these are often the views that make it out to the public via the media
      (who seem to like the extremes). The best we can do is be positive examples
      ourselves, and hope that the science continues to look at this question in
      greater depth.

      Pete

    • I have more fun running in minimalist shoes, period. That’s what counts, right?

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