Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Barefoot Running and Minimalist Shoes

I went for my first run in a week on Sunday and it went great. In talking with a few other runners last week, I realized that there was no sense in rushing myself back because I would likely only be setting myself up for re-injury...so I took it easy, which wasn't easy at all. I so badly wanted to get out there, especially since it was so nice outside. Anyway, I'm feeling good now, I've got a race coming up on Saturday that I'm looking forward to and it will be nice getting back into a normal training schedule.

Now to touch on a topic that is fairly new to me, the topic of 'barefoot' and 'minimalist' running. For those of you not familiar with this, it's a movement that is currently sweeping through the running community, promoting shoes that contain little to no padding in them. The over-arching theme isn't so much about shoes (or an absence of them as it were) but rather an emphasis on correct running form and preventing injury through the use of correct form. While it has been deemed a 'fad' by some, I doubt it's going to fade away anytime soon as evidenced by the fact that shoe companies have now gotten on-board. Saucony recently announced that it's decreasing the heel-to-toe drop of all of it's traditional shoes from 12mm to 8mm (or less) and a number of major shoe brands (Brooks, Saucony, Nike, Asics, etc) are now marketing "minimalist" or "barefoot" running shoes.

Last week, author and runner Christopher McDougall wrote a lengthy article for the New York Times in which he claimed to have found the "holy grail" of running - a training method called "100-upping" that can help train your body to run with correct form. Though the article has been met with some well-deserved harsh criticism, it got me thinking. In the piece, McDougall exposes a lie that the running-shoe industry has been selling us for the past 30 years: that your shoes aren't just a tool, they are an essential safety item for every runner. I suppose if I had stopped to think about this for any length of time I may have figured it out on my own, but as someone just getting back into running, I was more apt to look to others and well, every is always talking about shoes! In shoe stores we hear things like "pronation", "supination", "mid-foot strike", and on and on and we get the impression that we need special shoes and perhaps even special orthotics in order to prevent injury. Science has weighed in on the matter and basically found that your shoe and it's padding does not prevent injury. Plain and simple.

It makes sense when you think about it. 50 years ago there were less runners, sure, but there were still elite runners and there were still recreational runners and they didn't have the shoe technology that we have today yet they still managed to find a way to run at a high level and avoid injury. The shoe industry simply found a way to capitalize on people's fear of being injured and duped the public into thinking that they needed shoes to run safely. I wouldn't even go as far to say that running form is all there is. I think some people really do benefit from proper shoes due to a unique physical oddity or unique mechanical issue. Pete Larson, the evolutionary biologist that McDougall quotes often in his article weighed in on the matter and I think he would agree with me. He says,

"My general feeling is that there is no such thing as “perfect” running form, but rather that there is a “best” running form for each individual given the peculiarities of their own anatomy, physiology, and personal history (shoes, activity level, etc.)." [...] "Given my thoughts about form, I also don’t think there is a perfect shoe for all runners, nor do I think everyone should go barefoot. To be honest, I don’t even think science currently provides particularly good answers as to what any individual should wear or not wear on their feet. I think runner’s need not be afraid to experiment, and that they should take what they are told in most running stores with a grain of salt." (source)

Like my friend Stephen said, McDougall's aim in life seems to be to sell his own books (and who can blame him) and the simple fact of the matter is, saying that "everyone is different in terms of form and everyone has their own unique needs when it comes to shoes" isn't going to sell many books.


  1. Great post Adam. Seriously nice insight and commentary on the issue and the articles, and I'm with you, I think when it comes to running, shoes, and form, it all depends.

  2. Thanks for the comment and encouragement Mike.