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.