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A Lesson from the Barefoot Running Debate


The popularity of barefoot running is relatively new, research is sparse, and yet the two sides are already trenching in. One group seizes upon evolutionary biology, claiming we were “Born to Run” without shoes. The other clucks condescendingly that this “craze” is already leading to a rash of running injuries. And some just simply don’t care for the look of these unusual shoes claiming their popularity is due to the power of marketing.

Five days ago the Associated Press released a story on the pros and cons of barefoot running, and most major news outlets carrying the story titled it with words like “dangers” and “risks.” The article starts and finishes with an ultra-marathoner who logged hundreds of miles with nary a snag, but immediately suffered a stress fracture upon trying a pair of barefoot shoes.

I’ll admit to owning a pair of Vibram five-finger “barefoot” shoes, and I’ve been wanting to review them on this blog for a while. They feel great and look sexy, and other than some sore calves, I haven’t had any issues over the last ten months. But I’m not a runner. My personal best was a 10K a few years ago, and training for it was sheer agony. I really have no idea if barefoot running is good or bad.

Ignorance duly noted, I recently began about informing myself with the small amount of research available on barefoot running. The most frequently cited name in favor of ditching shoes is Dr. Daniel E. Lieberman, scientist at Harvard University who published a study on the biomechanics of foot striking pattern for runners with and without shoes. He found that barefoot runners generated less force upon landing than did the shoe-wearing group.  The tendency is for those wearing cushioned running shoes to strike at the heel, whereas those running barefoot landed more towards the front of the foot, absorbing and distributing that impact among the muscles of the foot and lower leg.

An Important Lesson?

It’s a compelling idea, but halfway through a summary of the study,  I was struck by the statement that 75-80% of distance runners are heel strikers, while most sprinters are land on the forefoot. I checked the actual study, and sure enough:

Sprinters often FFS (front foot strike), but 75–80% of contemporary shod endurance runners RFS (rear foot strike).

This lone mention of sprinters is, in my opinion, is one of the most illuminating lessons of this entire debate. The barefoot advocates primarily blame modern footwear for the heel-strike problem and the subsequent running injuries.The argument goes that if we could just get runners to front foot strike, we could reduce all of the problem associated with jarring heel impact. If you’re not already a hard-core runner, this might be the answer:

Quit running, and start sprinting. Problem solved, and you probably don’t even need to run barefoot.

I know there are other risks associated with sprinting, but with a bit of moderation and common sense, those looking for a healthy way to get in shape might want to avoid distance running altogether. Why else would you subject yourself to “pounding your heel with a hammer with two times your body weight” every time you land on pavement?

The superiority of sprinting to running when it comes to fat loss, metabolic boost, and maintenance of muscle mass has been widely documented. For a quick visual anecdote, compare the physiques of an elite level sprinter and an elite level distance runner. If you’re trying to burn calories and increase or maintain lean muscle mass, large doses of steady-state cardio (like distance running) are probably an inefficient use of your time and energy.

If you simply love to run, then pick your side and let the barefoot wars rage on. But if you’re looking for the best way to build strong, lean, functional physique, you can do much better than running.

P.S.-Since I’ve owned my Vibrams, I can’t deny that running is a lot more fun. I recently ran a 5K, and now I’ve been logging 2-4 mile runs on a regular basis. And I like it! So I sort of get where runners are coming from. As long as I stay pain-free, I’ll side with the barefoot crew for now.

Photo #1, Photo #2, Photo #3

UPDATE: I am no longer pain-free. I’ve been gearing up for the Tough Mudder, with a goal of getting up to six miles straight. I haven’t done anything beyond what I’m used to (3-4 miles), but the last few weeks I’ve been having some mild aches somewhere near the top of my foot above the ball. This is the hotzone for metatarsal stress fractures…cue the ominous music. I’m taking it easy, but I need to work back up to at least four miles before attempting the 10 mile Tough Mudder. I have three weeks, and I’m not sure what to do. Is this just a dull ache I can work through, or am I going to end up one of those stories of severed bone four miles away from the house, hobbling home in shame?

For now, I think I’ll give it a week off, and then run a mile or so on some uphill trails. Hopefully this will lessen any impact, and keep me in the game long enough to conquer the Tough Mudder. I’m benching the five fingers for now.

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