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Misconceptions About Barefoot Runners, Shoe Stores, and the Shoe Industry

Posted by on Dec 24, 2011 | 13 Comments

Over the last few years, I’ve had a unique opportunity to be involved with the heart of the grassroots barefoot running movement, the opportunity to work with designers and marketers within the shoe industry, and the opportunity to engage in conversations with retail store owners and employees.  These different worlds typically have misconceptions that sour perceptions of each other.  I want to dispel many of these misconceptions here:

Misconception #1: Barefoot runners want to destroy the shoe industry.

Reality: The VAST majority of barefoot runners live or run in conditions that require shoes, and their purchasing habits reflect this.  Barefoot runners REALLY want shoes that allow them to run with minimal interference so they can maintain the same good form they use then running barefoot.

Misconception #2: The raised heel was designed as a torture device.

Reality: As far as my research can tell, the raised heel was developed sometime in medieval Europe.  It served a few purposes.  It was used as an aid to help keep the foot in the stirrup of mounted soldiers (knights?)  This gave them greater freedom to use weapons.  It also helped the aristocracy navigate streets that were lined with rivers of human waste (read up on the history of chamber pots and accompanying lack of sidewalks.)  Eventually it was adopted as a fashion accessory. Most of these theories were presented by a friend, Scott Henning, and his attempts at teaching me why Charlamagne wore boots.

So why weren’t the original running shoes outfitted with raised heels?  Simple- it screwed up running form.  The raised heel didn’t make an appearance in running shoes until it was married to cushioning.

Misconception #3:  The raised heel was added to running shoes to help runners run faster.

Reality:  The first raised heels appear to have been an attempt to design a shoe that catered to the tiny percentage of heel strikers that existed in the days when all running shoes were flat.

Misconception #4: Shoe designers are scientists.

Reality: Shoe designers are artists.  While they may use some science in the design of shoes, their first concern is creating a beautiful product.  Some assume designers are lab-coat and goggle-wearing engineers that use rigorous scientific trials to develop and test the latest technology.  In reality, designers use common industry standards as a framework to build cool shit.

Misconception #5: Shoes are scientifically tested for effectiveness.

Reality:  Some believe shoe companies conduct drug-like trials to determine if their shoes help runners run better or stay more injury-free.  Shoe companies do not test the effectiveness of their shoes.  They may test the materials and construction for durability.  They may do small-scale home-brew experiments to test new ideas.  They may interpret data gleaned from wear testing.  But there are no laboratories where shoes are objectively tested in controlled experiments.  New models aren’t released because they significantly improve performance.  New models are released because designers design new products.

Misconception #6: The modern running shoe is designed using the principles of planned obsolescence.

Reality:  Planned obsolescence- you know, a product is designed to wear out after a short period of time.  The modern running shoe only lasts about 300 miles.  It’s commonly assumed the shoe is designed to give out after that short time.  That design is a function of the need for motion control and support, not because of a grand conspiracy to sell more shoes.  We don’t have materials that provide the structure needed for the design of modern running shoes that are capable of lasting a long period of time.  Foam breaks down.  [Note- I am in no way supporting the motion control and supportive features of shoes... I think it's a dumb idea.  I'm just presenting the reality of the situation.]

Misconception #7: All of us are biomechanically imperfect, thus we need motion control to limit things like pronation and supination.

Reality: We are biomechanically imperfect… when we overstride and land on our heels.  The “all humans are flawed” model did not exist prior to the invention of the modern running shoe.  The raised heel first appeared around 1980 or so to accommodate a small number of runners.  It seemed like a good, logical idea.  Cushioning was added to the heel to make the shoes better.  Other runners who DID NOT heel strike tried the shoes in stores.  Since the sole was cushioned, the shoes felt pretty good… when standing or walking back in forth in the shoe aisle.  The problem- the shoes encouraged a new way to run.

Around the mid-Eighties, scientists began researching the biomechanics of running… which by this time consisted of a lot of heavy heel strikers.  They noticed an unnatural “rolling” of the foot immediately after the heel hit the ground and made some correlations to injury.  They proposed limiting the movement of the foot would help runners.  The idea was picked up by shoe designers and the “motion control and support” arms race began.

The medical community also picked up this idea and began including it in their training.  We’ve had an entire generation of doctors, nurses, physical therapists, podiatrists, trainers, and coaches that learned these ideas IN SCHOOL.  Since we usually assume what we learned in school is always correct, few people in the medical community actually questioned the idea.

Over the next 25 years, shoe designers managed to produce shoes that did exactly what they thought they were supposed to do- facilitate a heavy heel strike and limit motion.  To this end, they were INCREDIBLY successful.  The problem- they were designing shoes that solved a problem that was based on a fundamentally flawed assumption.

Misconception #8: Research proves barefoot running is best.

Reality: Research is ongoing.  As of right now, there have been no meta-analyses comparing injury rates of barefoot runners to those wearing traditional running shoes.  Anecdotal evidence suggests barefoot running is better, but there are risks.  Research also suggests there are injuries barefoot runners experience in greater numbers than shod runners, like Achilles and calf issues or metatarsal stress fractures.

Misconception #9: There is one right way to run.

Reality: Humans are infinitely adaptable.  Furthermore, our individual anatomy will result is slightly different gaits for all individuals.  Many agree (myself included) that there are a few commonalities like shortened stride, balanced foot landing under the center of gravity, and upright posture.  However, some people have run injury-free for decades using an exceptionally heavy heel strike with exaggerated overstriding.

Misconception #10.  Running stores don’t get it.

Reality: Almost all running store owners and employees understand the principles of barefoot and minimalist shoe running.  Those that were around for a long time or have experience with professional running coaches know “good form” isn’t anything new.  They’ve always preached good form.  The problem is the customer.  The majority of their customers have no interest in learning to run better.  They just want a comfortable shoe that will allow them to pop in their ear buds and jog around the block a few times to burn off the two pieces of pumpkin pie they ate for breakfast.

The good stores, which are the majority in my experience, try to teach the principles of good running.  They can only do so much, though.  So why do they sell the cushioned shoes?

First, they’re a business.  As much as they give back to the local running community, they have to feed their families.  If they don’t sell the cushioned shoes, the uneducated customer will just go to the local Dick’s.  The running store will go out of business.  Local running stores’ inventory is driven by customer demand.  They can push minimalist shoes, but until the customer buys them, they’re not paying the bills.

 Misconception #11: Shoe companies don’t get it.

Reality: This is more or less the same response as the last one… shoe companies design and market shoes that customers will buy.  Until the customers learn to run with good form and demand good minimalist shoes, the cushioned motion control shoe will continue to be manufactured.

Some companies do push this envelope, though.  They’ve realized they can influence the customers through marketing and education.  We’re well aware of the companies that are currently doing this.  I anticipate (and may have some “behind the scenes” knowledge) there will be an explosion of companies teaching good form in the next year or two… including some of the REALLY big boys.

Shoe companies get it.  They have things to learn (see Sketchers’ marketing), but ARE making far more progress than most people realize.

Misconception #12: This whole thing is just a fad.

Reality: This is a paradigm shift.  It is a realization that we were doing things right for a very long time, then got off track.  We followed a tangent for far too long.  Now we’re moving back toward the right track.  Every indicator, from sales data to marketing, from web traffic to the propagation of barefoot running clubs, from the flood of interest in learning good running form to the dramatic increase of shoe-sponsored education efforts all point in the same direction- we’re relearning that running form is important.   Even the medical community and biomechanics researchers are coming around.

 

 

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13 Comments

  1. barefootCourier
    December 31, 2011

    Have to disagree with the answer to misconception #1 ‘barefoot runners’ want to run barefoot. Minimalist runners want shoes with minimal interference.

    I love sports outlets and running without shoes means more money spent on other running gear. Barefooters aren’t bearded cotton t-shirt wearers on the whole! and still want their Nike etc running gear.

    My urban and suburban runs rarely need anything on my feet. For racing I become a minimalist runner, for that race, as racing often involves letting the ego take precedence over foot feedback. My minimalist shoe? $10 water socks.

    Barefoot and minimalist are often ill-defined. Barefoot = shoeless, minimalist = less shoe.

  2. Charlie
    December 28, 2011

    Hey.
    Pumpkin pie is a good breakfast.

  3. Stuart Preston
    December 28, 2011

    What about those Gait Analysis videos the high-end shoe stores use? Any validity to those?

  4. mike nelson
    December 25, 2011

    you forgot misconception #13. shoes will protect you from injury.

    fact. if you’re alive you will get hurt. nothing can ever stop that from happening. i am happier going bf because i no longer roll my ankles on every run like i did in shoes. i’m working through old injuries and imbalances and my form is getting better so that i can keep good form when i do wear shoes to run. protection is needed at certain times like wet and cold. alone they are do able, together, fuhgetabout it.

  5. Boris Terzic
    December 24, 2011

    Well put, hopefully all sides can come together.

  6. briderdt
    December 24, 2011

    Nicely said. Hopefully all the sides can come together.

  7. Scott
    December 24, 2011

    Jason,

    You brought up question of comparing bfr to traditional shod running, but I was wondering if there are any studies comparing bfr to running in zero drop minimalist shoes.

    There seems to be a growing number of bfr’s who think that bfr is superior to running in minimalist shoes, and even look down upon those (like me) who chose to run in minimalist shoes. I’m a scientist, and the evidence (both anecdotal and physiological) to running or walking naturally with no heel lift and great proprioception is convincing to me, but I haven’t found any to convince me that I’m missing something substantial by not going barefoot.

    I know we weren’t born with shoes, but we were also not born with clothes to cover ourselves and keep us warm. I also like living in a house – and not a cave – like some paleolithic ancestor, or even some thatched hut with a dirt floor (the natural argument is uncompelling to me as a scientist). So is there real evidence other than a personal choice or wanted to follow some ideology that bfr running is physiologically beneficial over proper and natural footwear?

  8. Tim
    December 24, 2011

    Thanks for responding. The rehab analogy is one that would benefit many in my figurative shoes! Once my pain subsides and I can consider going for a run I do have some low, 4mm drop, shoes I can try. I’ll just have to be extremely vigilant about form. Hopefully the past several months of skin to ground running have created some muscle memory.

    • Tim
      December 24, 2011

      I’m dumb and didn’t use the reply function (doh!). This comment was obviously in response to Jason’s reply. Hey, you try writing coherently with a two year old climbing your head to get the Christmas tree!

  9. Tim
    December 24, 2011

    Great article, Jason! I’m sitting here nursing an apparent bfr-related injury (2nd metatarsal) and points 8 and 9 have really resonated with me. I won’t lie that after 8 months of taking it slow and working on form, etc. I feel frustrated; I seem to be right back in the running injury boat. My concern and question are that I’m simply trading one class of injury for another, going from knee/low back issues that bfr helped erase to foot/ankle issues that never appeared before barefoot running.

    I’m rambling, but my question to you is: is there a middle ground, and where is it? I tend to find either/or propositions and all or nothing attitudes as I seek a way to reduce injury issues. At the end of the day I just want to run. I really don’t care if I’m barefoot or in mood boots at this point; I just miss being able to run. It’s sapping my spirit.

    • Jason
      December 24, 2011

      Tim, this is a relevant question us barefoot runners haven’t done a good job answering.

      First, I sincerely believe if one always ran barefoot or in minimalist shoes with good form, injury rates would be close to non-existent.

      The problem comes from our years in shoes that weaken parts of the body that are used heavily when running with good form. That requires a transition period to strengthen the body… much like the need for rehab after breaking something and having it immobilized in a cast.

      Just like rehab, it is nearly impossible to predict how long that transition period will last as it’s dependent on an individual’s body’s ability to adapt.

      Over time, I’ve warmed up to the idea of a “transition” shoe for some people. That may include a zero drop cushioned shoe or a minimally-raised heel. Going barefoot may be too much of an adjustment for some to make at one time.

      Of course, the transition shoe comes with a major caveat- it requires learning better form in the transition shoe, then relearning better form once you go zero drop or barefoot. In some cases, that caveat may be worthwhile.

      • Brian G
        December 24, 2011

        If you had a severe back injury requiring you to be in a body cast for a year, then got out of it and immediately starting doing really heavy deadlifts of course you would hurt yourself. Same thing with transitioning from a highly supportive shoe to a more minimalist shoe. It takes time for supportive structures in the body to strengthen back to their intended use.

        Minimalist running is great, great fun. But that enjoyment must be tampered with prudent caution to take the transition slow (very slow with some individuals) and pay extra attention to pain.

        • Tim
          December 24, 2011

          True, Brian. In my case the injury referenced was directly related to bfr. It was an impact injury due to an errant footfall.

          I do agree about the transition piece as well, and took it quite slowly and following Jason’s recommendations on the RWOL forum. I began bfr after a long (read years) layoff from running and lots of time barefoot around the house and such. I’ve not run more than 5k, with one exception of an accidental 4mile run in late summer, and the 5k runs came well after months of 1/4 mile runs with incremental increase, as recommended.

          Your point I most agree with is the variability in transition timeframe by individual. this should be stressed more frequently in my opinion. Not by folks like Jason, bit by the rest of us in our interactions with the bfr-curious. My biggest source of frustration was with the barefoot running community after I got hurt. Any expression of doubt over whether bf/ultraminimal running was the answer FOR ME was met with dogmatic tirades against shoes. That’s why Jason’s points today resonated with me so strongly; this is one of the most moderate perspectives I have seen on the bf/shoe debate yet.