This post is a tangent derived from my post last week about some shoe industry misconceptions and my post a few days ago about the changing nature of our audience. I’ve been thinking about the various things I’ve learned on my barefoot journey.
When I started, I made a lot of assumptions. Most of the assumptions were based on the teaching of others or my own apparently logical conclusions. Most of the assumptions were reinforced by groupthink- our community repeated the beliefs without much critical thought. If someone objected, they were marginalized and dismissed as having an agenda or other such dismissive rationale. We had a tendency to espouse the results of other people’s experiences. When we repeated it, it was nothing more than dogma.
Since that time, I’ve consistently pushed my own barefoot limits. I’ve never been the kind of person that recognizes a boundary and stays on the side of safety. It’s my nature to push forward when other people or my own body object. I don’t shy away from challenges I am clearly not prepared or well-trained to handle. I willingly accept the lessons learned through failure. I would never grow if I weren’t willing to leave my comfort zone.
My curiosity has also led me to experiment endlessly. I’ve probably tried more shoes, minimal… er, barefoot shoes and otherwise, than most. I’ve tried running barefoot in as many different conditions as possible. I’ve also been open to discussions with anyone and everyone- runners, non-runners, shoe store owners and employees, shoe industry insiders, etc.
This pushing of the limits has allowed me to learn a great deal about barefoot running- much more than if I always played it safe. Always questioning everything, even my closely held beliefs, has given me valuable insight to our world. Over time, I began to realize many of the assumptions I made were either wrong or did not apply to every situation. In short, I was wrong.
There’s a danger in admitting you were wrong. If people look up to you as a “leader”, they may see your admission of error as a weakness. After all, if I were wrong in the past, why should they trust anything I say today? That was basically my argument against barefoot running coach certification- how many cert programs would change if they got something wrong? Anyway, I’m willing to take that risk in the name of progress. We don’t know everything there is to know about barefoot running… why pretend we do? Let’s admit the gaps in our knowledge and work together to fill said gaps. Let’s avoid letting our egos stand in the way of progress. After all, I’d rather create an army of free thinking leaders than a group of conforming followers.
With that, I give you my list of beliefs I once held that I now actively question:
1. Barefoot running is for everyone. If we never introduce raised heel supportive shoes, pretty much anyone, barring circulation or sensory deficits, could run barefoot. HOWEVER, reality is a little different. Some people that have spent their lives in supportive shoes have so much foot atrophy, transitioning to barefoot is not worthwhile. In some cases, it may even be impossible. This one is a little difficult to admit because the hard-core shoe crowd has been telling us this for a long time. Admitting they may have been right stings a little.
2. Shoes are evil. Shoes are sometimes necessary for protection. That may be protection from the elements, protection from the terrain, or protection from flora or fauna. We can navigate a great deal of our environment when barefoot. Interestingly, we’re more capable of navigating areas developed by man than the natural world. It’s a lot easier walking barefoot down a concrete sidewalk than through the open desert or across a mountain pass. shoes are tools that allow us to go and do things we can’t do barefoot.
3. Shoe companies are evil and only concerned with profit. I touched on this in my “misconceptions” post. The advent of the modern running shoe came about through some misinterpreted research and unexpected customer demand. There was never any ill will- the companies were producing shoes that solved what they thought were things that caused injuries (pronation, for example.) They weren’t purposely deceiving the public. Yes, shoe companies are in the business of selling shoes… that’s why they’re a shoe company. Just because they have a profit motive doesn’t mean they’re evil. In fact, that profit motive assures they want runners to stay injury-free. An injured runner doesn’t buy shoes. As we see more research supporting minimalism in the years to come, we’ll see companies increasingly using the influence in their designs.
4. Barefoot running is the best way to learn good form. For most people, the addition of a tactile connection to the ground is an invaluable tool to learn good form. However, it’s not necessarily a prerequisite to learning good form. I’ve met too many people that simply cannot learn to run by feel OR are overly distracted by the feeling of the ground. I credit Jeremy Huffman with hammering this point home… for years it seems. People can learn good form in a variety of ways- barefoot is just one of many. I happen to think it’s the fastest and most effective, but not necessarily for everyone. For some, programs like Pose, ChiRunning, Good Form Running, or Evolution Running may be a better option.
5. There is such thing as good form. Well, sort of. Back in the day I thought there was a definite right way to run and wrong way to run. Since those “black and white” days, I’ve recognized there’s a lot of gray area. For most people, there are benefits from learning to run with better form, but what constitutes “better” is debatable. While I believe using shorter strides and faster cadence with your feet landing under your center of gravity is better than overstriding with a heavy heel strike, there are a lot of people that get away with the latter without problems.
The lesson- humans are infinitely adaptable. As I’ve discussed with our diets, we can get away with a lot. If there’s an ideal, we have tremendous latitude to deviate from that ideal. It may be beneficial to gravitate toward that ideal, but defining the ideal itself is difficult. The best course of action is probably self-experimentation. Test out different ideas, continue those that produce positive results, stop those that produce negative results. I’ll continue teaching toward what I consider to be an ideal, but I will also recognize there’s a lot of variance from that ideal. I’ll accept those that succeed using a different ideal.
6. You can run anywhere barefoot with enough practice. I used to believe this… until I actually tried it. In fact, it’s one of my biggest pet peeves. It’s usually said by complete newbies or road runners that live in relatively warm climates… never someone that has actually attempted to run on truly difficult trails. For anyone that has tried pushing their barefoot limits, this notion is laughable. There’s a reason nobody has been able to complete a 100 miler barefoot.
Barefoot skeptics often say barefoot running may have been adequate for our ancestors, but not in our modern world. I actually think they have that backwards. Our modern asphalt and concrete world is FAR more barefoot-friendly than man natural areas. Back country mountain trails with sharp granite and deserts with fifty species of thorny plants are two barefoot-unfriendly areas that come to mind.
7. You should be allowed to go barefoot anywhere and everywhere. This is a tough issue for me. It’s a battle between my belief in personal freedom versus respecting the rights of others. We should be allowed to go barefoot in public, including public buildings. Private businesses are a gray area. Business owners should have the right to refuse barefootedness. However, I’m not above using persuasion to convince private businesses that barefootedness is acceptable.
[Edit- the Primalfoot Alliance asked a good question via Twitter- why should businesses be allowed to discriminate? My answer- personal freedom. If a business owner wants to ban barefooters, so be it. We shouldn't take that right away from them. HOWEVER, I also support the right of barefooters to launch a full-scale boycott of that business, which I would readily join said boycott. It's like the freedom of speech- we shouldn't limit it because we don't like the message... but we also shouldn't limit the consequences a person faces for exercising that right. Just my opinion about personal freedoms...]
8. Toe spring is bad. Toe spring is the upward curvature of the toe box in most shoes. The conventional barefoot wisdom vilified toe spring. The curve placed the toes in an unnatural position. After testing many shoes with toe spring, I concluded it wasn’t something that interfered with running gait… assuming the sole is flexible enough to flatten out. In fact, shoes without toe spring usually suffer from a serious problem. The fabric from the top of the toe box folds, which rubs on the top of the toes. Some degree of toe spring may be a good thing.
9. Cushioning is bad. Cushioning is a tricky issue. On one hand, it can make very long runs more comfortable and provide protection on extremely rugged terrain. On the other hand, it hides bad form and usually increases how hard your foot strikes the ground. Based on this I rarely if ever, recommend cushioned shoes to people learning good form unless they are learning using a method that does not require tactile sensation (like Pose or Chi… though both of those methods could probably be enhanced by being barefoot. I digress…) I would recommend cushioned shoes to people that require the protection… but only if they have developed the ability to maintain good form without tactile feedback. Christian wrote an entire post about this topic.
10. Arch support is bad. This is even trickier than cushioning. Arch support is prevalent in the non-minimal shoe community… even thought of as a requirement. Arch support is acceptable… if you have an injury. Arch support immobilizes. As such, it can be used to immobilize the foot to allow it to heal after an acute injury. As soon as the tissue has healed, however, arch support should be removed and the area strengthened through rehab. Once up to full strength, arch support should be avoided. The problem is arch support is used chronically to treat symptoms that should be fixed via strengthening.
11. Barefoot running reduces injuries. For many people, barefoot running WILL reduce injuries. I’m one of those people. My only significant injury I’ve had over the last six years or so is a broken toe. Many people experience similar benefits. However, this is not a universal guarantee. Some people will experience more injuries when running barefoot. The change in gait places different stresses on the body, which transfers the injury risk from one area to another. In VERY general terms, the injuries tend to change from skeletal injuries in the traditionally-shod population to soft tissue injuries in the barefoot population. Being cautious when transitioning can help reduce the risk significantly, but it will not completely eliminate the risk of injuries.
12. Transition shoes are a bad idea. I was adamantly against “transition shoes” for a long time. A transition shoe is a shoe that fits somewhere between a raised heel, motion control shoe and a true minimalist “barefoot” shoe. The idea is logical- you can “step down” gradually to get from point A to point B. I have always been an advocate of ditching the shoes altogether and learning good form while barefoot. Minimalist shoes can be added at a later time once good form is properly learned.
The problem- long-term shod runners usually have very weak feet. It may take an exceptionally long time to strengthen their anatomy to deal with the rigors of a changed running gait. This will likely require a significant reduction in training. In many cases, it means going back to near-zero mileage. For some, it makes more sense to gradually move to a more minimal shoe without radically changing form. With each step down, running gait will have to be tweaked. The overall process of learning good form usually takes longer. However, it may take less time to get back to their previous mileage because they won’t have to rebuild their base. Individual situations will warrant the best course of action; it’s nearly impossible to give “one size fits all” advice.
13. Heel striking is bad. After watching A LOT of runners running in a variety of shod and unshod conditions, reading the science, and talking to the people doing the science, it’s fairly safe to assume how your foot hits the ground isn’t as important as where your foot hits the ground. This was a major revelation for me as I had been a long-term proponent of a midfoot strike. Based on emerging data and anecdotal evidence, landing on your heel doesn’t increase ground reaction forces as long as you’re landing under your center of gravity. In other words, overstriding, or landing with your foot in front of your center of gravity, is the problem.
Part of this revelation came from watching ultrarunners. When running very long distances, efficiency is the key. Almost every ultrarunner utilizes a short, quick cadence with their foot landing under their hips. Most land on their heel, but without the driving force you typically see in shorter distance road runners. This was such a revelation, it influenced my teaching at the Bareform clinics I conduct.
[Edit: this is a complex issue... I may be wrong about being wrong. Check out this recently-published study.]
14. It takes a long time to learn good form. We used to believe it took many months if not years to learn good form. We obsessed over a million details. We tweaked this and that. Over time, our teaching started getting more and more complex. My move to simplify my life caused some reflection about how we taught barefoot running. I realized we were making this too difficult. We were giving people too much to think about. I changed course and dramatically simplified my teaching to three items- posture, where your foot lands, and cadence.
Using this method, I found most people could learn good form… in about 60 seconds. It took another four or five minutes to teach some basic self-diagnostic methods to fix problems. many people could immediately implement these changes and make a dramatic difference in one ten minute session. It may take some people longer, and it usually takes some time to allow the body to adapt to the changed demands on your body, but the actual learning of good form is pretty simple.
15. Barefoot running will make you faster or be able to run longer. Barefoot running may make you run faster and longer, but it’s not a guarantee. Some people never regain their shod pace or endurance when barefoot. Sometimes they’re okay with the degraded performance because they find running more enjoyable. If they learn good form and learn to use minimal shoes properly, many people will get faster and be able to run longer. I have met a few people that did not improve. Furthermore, the transition to barefoot and minimalism made it impossible for them to go back to their raised heel motion control shoes without having to go through another transition period. Because of this, making the transition to barefoot and minimalist shoe running can be risky.
There’s a reason so few people win races barefoot, and it has nothing to do with shoe sponsorships. For the vast majority of the population, shoes improve performance by providing some protection. this protection gives a greater margin of error, which allows the runner to push a little bit harder.
So what’s left? There are exceptions to every belief or idea, but there do seem to be some things we probably got right. For example:
- Raised heels don’t do anything to help us biomechanically assuming we’ve never worn high heels in the first place,
- Motion control shoes offer no significant advantage,
- Pronation isn’t a bad thing,
- Severe overstriding is a bad thing,
- We’d be better off if we didn’t put our kids in raised heel shoes.
There are others, but this is a start.
Of course, this is my list. I put it out there to start discussion. I don’t expect you to begin quoting me. In fact, I forbid it. Test your assumptions with your own experiences. Make your own list.
There’s a general lack of skepticism surrounding our community, and it does all us a disservice. We should be more open to opposing viewpoints. We should also be more open to questioning our own beliefs no matter how logical they may seem, no matter how many people agree with us, or who supports the idea. We need to seek out opinions outside our small community. Through this process, we’ll gain a greater understanding of that which we preach. It will also give us more ideas we can use for self-experimentation which will ultimately improve our running… and by extension, our lives.
Listen more than you talk. Be open to new ideas. Consider other possibilities. Actually try something before speaking out against it. Don’t automatically agree with “experts”, including me. Same deal with crowds… just because an idea is popular doesn’t mean it’s right. Free yourself from your own biases and look at things from other people’s perspective. Most importantly, be willing to change your stance when confronted with conflicting evidence.
What are your thoughts? Are there any beliefs you held, but experience proved otherwise?