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.