the barefoot running debate

“I can’t prove this, but I believe when my runners train barefoot, they run faster and suffer fewer injuries.”

— Vin Lananna, Director of Track and Field for the University of Oregon and seven-time NCAA Coach of the Year.

“Shoes do no more for the foot than a hat does for the brain.”

—Dr. Mercer Rang, the legendary orthopedic surgeon and researcher in pediatric development.

We’re lucky. 2010 is going to be a great year, because we’re watching one of the most harmful myths in human performance explode before our eyes. I discovered this quite by accident while researching Born to Run. When I set off to explore the secrets of the Tarahumara, I assumed this ancient tribe was custodian of a tidy little technical trick, and once I learned it, I’d abracadabra myself from a broken-down ex-runner into an unbreakable, unstoppable, ultrarunning dirt demon.I was at least partially correct: the secret to injury-free running isn’t the proper shoe. It isn’t stretching. It isn’t even training mileage.

It’s skill.
Like every other sport, healthy running is all about technique.

But why hadn’t I ever heard that before?

All I ever heard, over and over, was about shoes. Every podiatrist, sports physician, and running magazine preached endlessly about the absolute necessity of corrective footwear. I was never told what to do; I was only told what to buy.

So how did that square with the Tarahumara? They run multiple marathons — I’m talking about 150-plus miles at a time — on stony trails as hard as any city street. All they wear is the thinnest of home-made sandals, with zero cushioning, no motion-control, and certainly no orthotics. I saw Tarahumara men in their seventies springing around like teenagers. Caballo Blanco, the White Horse wanderer at the center of my book, watched a 95-year-old man cruise more than 30 miles up and down the canyon face. So how were their legs holding up to a lifetime of running without running shoes?

“One surprising advantage the Tarahumara seem to have over the rest of the world is their lack of technology. They essentially run barefoot or in sandals and experience very little in the way of injury. Over the years, running shoes have become more and more cushioned with more and more high-tech gadgetry attached. Rather than improving our runs, these developments seem to have worsened them. The latest gotta-have running shoe in the stores is causing the average runner to land in a continuous unnatural position, causing more harm over the long haul than good. I can say, as someone who’s run many a marathon in little more than canvas and rubber, that there is some truth to this. Like the rest of our bodies, the foot is designed to run. Simplicity is key. A shoe shouldn’t be a La-Z-Boy recliner.”

— Bill Rodgers, marathon great and running specialty store owner, reviewing Born to Run for the San Francisco Chronicle.

I began drilling into running-shoe research, and the further I went, the less I found. There’s nothing there. Nothing. No evidence whatsoever that running shoes do anything. Know why you’ve never seen an ad for a running shoe that actually tells you what the shoe will do? Because there is no evidence that running shoes do anything to prevent injuries. None. In fact, research currently in progress indicates that runners in shoes experience far more impact than runners in bare feet.

“If we assume that most people have an alignment that is bad, one would think that shoes should be used to align the locomotor system appropriately. The facts are most people have an alignment that is fine. Shoes and orthotics do not align the locomotor system in a major way.

–Dr. Benno Nigg, founder of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Calgary and author of “The Biomechanics of Running Shoes.”

The entire, multi-billion dollar industry 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.
So why does anyone wear them? And how did the running shoe, which didn’t even exist before most of us were born, become a multi-billion dollar business and a purportedly indispensable piece of sportswear? I dive into that research in Born to Run. And in the months since it was published, I’ve also had the chance to discuss it with Dr. Oz, Jon Stewart, the New York Times’ “Roving Runner,” John Berman of “Nightline”, and a good number of other reporters. To date, the only people I’ve found who who refuse to consider the idea that running shoes are a bad idea are the people who sell them. Otherwise, I’ve yet to come across anyone who won’t take these points to heart:

Fear Factor:
Only in our lifetime has running become associated with fear and injury. Do you think Geronimo worried about plantar fasciitis before setting off to run 50 miles across the stone-hard Mojave desert to steal horses? In Ancient Egypt, Ramses II had to legitimize his hold on the throne by performing a long-distance run every few years, a ritual he performed until he was over 90 years old. In 2088 B.C., King Shulgi of Sumeria attended two religious festivals in different cities by running 200 miles from one to the other. To this day, the Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei in Japan run up to 50 miles a day in flimsy sandals for seven years. Yet with all this ultra-running going on, no data on running injuries exists prior to the creation of the modern, super-structured running shoe in the 1970s. Does that mean no one ever got hurt? More likely, it means runners were gentler on their legs and landed more softly because they weren’t relying on air-injected foam.

“We found pockets of people all over the globe who are still running barefoot, and what you find is that during propulsion and landing, they have far more range of motion in the foot and engage more of the toe. Their feet flex, spread, splay and grip the surface, meaning you have less pronation and more distribution of pressure.”

—Jeff Pisciotta, Senior Researcher, Nike’s Sports Research Lab.

Born broken
The notion that the human foot is inherently flawed and automatically needs some kind of corrective device is kind of nuts. Only one other animal on the planet wears shoes, and only because we grab them by the legs and hammer them on. Humans have been running for millions of years, nearly all that time in bare feet. So how on earth could we have survived if running was bad for the body? Running isn’t bad for you — but running poorly is. The safest and most time-tested running technique is the one you perform in bare feet. If a shoe 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 feet. If he’s foolish enough to try it once, he won’t try it twice.

“Jargon is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” —Roger Ebert

Supination, over-pronation, multi-angled forefoot gel pods, midfoot thrust enhancers… Look, the first running shoes in the ‘70s were barely more than laces and a thin strip of rubber. It’s not that putting a fat heel, supported arch, and marshmallowy sole on a shoe was all that hard; it just wasn’t seen as necessary. Over the years, technology creep has taken over industry, tempting shoe manufacturers into loading on more and more gimmicks in an attempt to separate themselves from the competition. Along with the gimmicks has come gimmicky language. All of it is designed to scare you into believing you need some kind of correction. To appreciate the true weirdness of this pseudo-science, try applying it to swimming. If you drop a kid in the pool and he sinks, you don’t say he has poor biomechanics and is doomed to wear floaties the rest of his life. You fish him out, then teach him a proper stroke. That way, he’s free for life instead of enslaved to a device.

Podiatrists keep saying that maybe humans evolved to run on “soft, grassy, natural surfaces,” but not on “hard, man-made surfaces.” What soft, grassy fantasy land did they come from? Check out the sun-baked African savannah sometime; hard as cement. Or the stone trails of Mexico’s Copper Canyons, or the packed dirt roads of Ancient Greece. The human foot loves hard surfaces. Our legs are packed with springy tendons which give us lots of elastic recoil, much the way a golf ball, loaded with rubber bands, rockets up from a cement pavement. If you’re trying to run an antelope to death, would you prefer springing along with free elastic recoil, or sinking into sand and mushy grass? And the fact is, anyone who’s tried running in their bare feet soon discovers that there is no difference in impact between hard and soft surfaces. You just bend your knees a little more.

So how come elite marathoners don’t go barefoot?
They do. Take another look up top at Vin Lananna’s take on bare feet and elites. Also, the best pro marathoners in the world — Kenyans and Ethiopians — run thousands of miles in bare feet before ever strapping on their first pair of shoes. Coach Joe Vigil estimates that Kenyan teenagers have already logged some 18,000 miles before entering competition. By the time they get their first pair of shoes, their running technique is already hard-wired for lightfooted efficiency. When it comes to a race, of course they’ll wear a racing flat. Who would risk their entire year’s payday by stepping on an acorn?

Which brings up the final point…

Shoes are sometimes better than bare feet.
Nike actually got it right with its first few generations of shoes. They were thin and light, offering just what runners needed and no more: a little protection from rough ground and cold weather. But problems arise when protection turns into correction, and marketing takes over for education. Once gimmicks take over and technique is scuttled, you can expect up to 90% of all marathon runners to become injured.

And they are.

But ultimately, the debate isn’t about Bare Soles vs. Shoes. It’s about learning to run gently. Master that, and you can wear — or not wear — anything you please.


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