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Barefoot Running Philosophy: The Current State of the Mind

Posted by on May 19, 2012 | 6 Comments

Every once in awhile, I like to consider my current thoughts, opinions, and observations on all things related to barefoot running. My own barefoot philosophy has changed dramatically since I first ditched my foot coffins back in the day. Here’s my latest thoughts:

On Barefoot Running:

  • Barefoot running is a great way for many people to learn to run in a more efficient manner. If we recognize our brain has the ability to maximize motions to become as metabolically-efficient as possible (e.g.- we waste as little energy as we can in any given condition), the skin-on-ground condition is difficult to beat. We’re taking advantage of as much sensory input as possible, which is the raw data our brain uses to make the small adjustments that maximize efficiency. In short…
  • It’s all about efficient running form, which is unique to each individual. Barefoot running is merely a tool to help learn that form, but anecdotal evidence suggests efficiency and injury-prevention are a function of finding your ideal form.
  • Barefoot running remains one of the best ways to learn to run in minimalist shoes. The gait used for barefoot running and “barefoot” minimalist shoes is probably close to identical for both conditions. Based on my own experiences and observations of others, barefoot running is the fastest way to learn to run in minimalist shoes.
  • Barefoot running limits the dangers of doing too much too soon. Ken Bob has been saying this for years, and he’s right. People seem to experience a lot less injuries when transitioning if they actually start barefoot.
  • Learning to run barefoot is simple for most people. About a third of the people I come in contact with can just take off their shoes. Another third require some VERY basic instruction (like the ABC stuff I teach in clinics). The last third usually needs more instruction, like books, video, a barefoot running group, coaching, or some other source of knowledge.
  • Not everyone wants to run barefoot. Most people don’t want to try. Of that group, I found some will like it if they give it a chance. At least half won’t even try despite the advantages I mention above. That group is more content transitioning to minimalist shoes or even using their old shoes and just learning to run with better form.
  • The injury prevention benefits touted with barefoot running are dubious. If you compare a typical heel striker to a barefoot runner, injuries seem to shift from one area to another. In other words, barefoot running isn’t going to make you bullet proof. The real cause of injuries is probably pushing too hard, whether we’re wearing shoes or barefoot.

On Minimalist Shoes:

  • The options are increasing at breakneck speed, which is a great development. Just about every major manufacturer is dabbling in minimal designs. Some are taking a leadership role and expanding their lines. New startups continue to enter the market. The gray area between ultra-minimal “barefoot shoes” and traditional raised-heel cushioned trainers continues to blur, which leads me to…
  • Foot coffins probably aren’t as bad as we made them out to be… for some people. Various characteristics of shoes alter gait. For some people, that may be medically-necessary. The problem, of course, is HOW foot coffins are sold. I’m more convinced than ever than local running stores are really under-qualified to diagnose gait issues, let alone prescribe shoes to correct said problems. The solution to this problem could be…
  • Minimalist shoes should be the default shoes recommended by running stores. If there’s an issue that requires stability or motion control shoes, qualified doctors should make that call. Starting with minimalist shoes as the default setting would be much like starting with a neutral baseline, which seems a lot more logical than current practices.

On the Shoe Industry

  • We’ve had it wrong about the motivation behind the shoe industry over the last 30 years. There is no grand conspiracy to injure runners. There’s no secret marketing plans to assure runners need shoes every 300 miles. The industry is filled with people doing what they do to help advance the injury. The modern foot coffin development has been a confluence of events free of ill-will.
  • I stand by my previous predictions, which I talked about here and here. While some of the periphery ideas have changed, I believe that colorful graph in the first linked post is the future of the shoe industry. Check out Pete Larson’s comments on the sales figures for the first quarter of 2012.

There are quite a few other elements of my own personal philosophy that are changing as new information, research, and experiences emerge. In my previous post, I asked “What have you learned about barefoot running.” How about a slightly different question- “How have your thoughts on barefoot running changed since beginning?” Leave your thoughts in the comments section!

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6 Comments

  1. James
    June 1, 2012

    I’m usually pretty skeptical but I agree with you that shoe companies probably didn’t conspire to design injury causing shoes. Controlling the motion of the foot with built in support was the prevailing mindset in both the shoe industry and the medical field for a long time. Now at least there is enough interest to generate research that challenges that, supporting a move away from the highly engineered shoes.

    I learned the hard way that a stability shoe was actually doing more harm even though that’s what the running store recommended.

    Certain people could probably literally run in anything and never have an injury if their form and biomechanics were good. I recently switched to mid-foot striking and now barefoot running, but it wasn’t without a little trial and error and some strange aches and pains along the way. If I had started with barefoot training like you suggested then probably that transition would have been a lot smoother.

  2. Chris
    May 21, 2012

    The big shoe companies may not be evil, but there is definitely some flawed moral judgemnets made by them in the race to keep their share holders happy. I think this is were my suspicion and anger towards them comes from rather than believeing they wanted to mess up everyones running gate. As stated that side of things is just years of heading down the wrong path and conclusions. So i think greedy and immoral, rather than evil, may be a way to describe these companies.

  3. Darren
    May 20, 2012

    Jason,

    Some very good insights in this article, and I totally agree with you and Ken Bob that the best way to learn how to run in barefoot shoes is by running barefoot. I also think it is helpful for people who haven’t gone barefoot much to walk barefoot first, even if it’s just 100 yards or so a day. Michael Sandler advocates a very slow start as well. So I really think that the injuries caused by “barefoot” are, for the most part, caused by people trying to do too much too soon without developing the proper form.

    As far as science proving the benefit of barefoot running, I would say it already has. How? By getting people like me, who never could run in shoes for more than a month without developing shin splints, to be able to run again pain-free. If science hasn’t exactly explained the “why” of it all, that’s OK with me. I know that I run about 20-30 miles a month barefoot (not a lot, I know), but that’s 20-30 miles a month more than I was running before I realized that running barefoot is perfectly feasible.

    Now, about that conspiracy. I would say if it *was* a conspiracy, it was more a conspiracy of ignorance than of malice or greed. I do think some of the shoe marketing tactics are a bit devious, and I think some of the designs and features over the years have been gimmicks, but by and large I think a statement by UK podiatrist Steve Bloor more or less sums it up. Bloor, BTW, was avery successful orthotics designer in the UK before making the switch to barefoot a couple years back. Bloor had this to say in a 2010 interview with barefootand grounded.com: “Although we knew that our job was to negate the damaging effects of shoes, never once did it occur to me, nor was it ever discussed, that the patient could ever choose between barefoot and shoes.”

    I think that most athletic shoe-makers were operating from the premise that more is better in terms of protecting and cushioning the feet, and it never really occurred to them that for some runners, less is best. They know it now, however, and I think it’s great that there is a growing minimalist shoe market for those who want to use them. The irony, of course, is that to get the most out of such shoes, you need to be familiar with how it actually feels to walk and run barefoot.

  4. Jeff Gallup
    May 19, 2012

    Jason, my thoughts are exactly in line with yours with respect to barefoot running as the way to train to run in a minimalist shoe. It is quite possible to still run in bad form (albeit painfully), in many minimalist shoes.

    I am working on extending my barefoot running miles, but I am no means a hard core barefoot runner.. I intersperse a few miles here and there 1) because its fun 2) because it feels good, and 3) it drives home the correct form and feel for running that I can carry over to my minimalist shoes. I think it would be harder, and less effective to try to “transition” from a coffin to a minimalist shoe.. too much room for injury and its tougher to get the form down.

    As for the market, I sometimes think that although the industry can dictate a lot, they are only going to successfully sell what the consumer wants (or believes they want). As the push from consumers for minimalist shoes grows, the industry will change. My concern is the “psuedo” minimalist shoes being sold to people who think they know about the barefoot style, but have not educated themselves.. I can see a lot of people getting injured from TMTS and dismissing minimalist/barefoot as fad.

    Jeff

  5. Brian G
    May 19, 2012

    I never believed shoe companies were evil. They were just filling a market’s desire where the market didn’t know any better — and for the most part still doesn’t know although it’s learning.

    I woke up and realized that for me all that shoe engineering for stability isn’t necessary. And I figured taking as much stuff out as possible would only do good. I now realize that some shoe features, like rock plates, are definitely helpful particularly on really nasty paths (notice I didn’t say trails) strewn with sharp, pointy rocks. Without stuff like that I would end up going so slow as to be at a walking pace which entirely defeats the purpose. The same could be said for other features like traction.

    If someone wants to get into running or is having injury issues possibly caused by running form, then that person should try minimalist shoes or barefoot as the default. The science behind stability engineering is just too dubious to be of any value. But, to paraphrase Pete Larson, if the person is running in highly engineered shoes and is doing fine then don’t bother trying to fix what isn’t broken. There are plenty of individuals who could wear *anything* on their feet and be just fine.

  6. Bare Lee
    May 19, 2012

    At first I thought intelligent design had created the effect of earthing, and that barefoot running would allow me to maximize my harvest of this wondrous spiritual energy, but now I’m beginning to question that, and wonder if science will ever be able to prove any real benefit to barefoot running, unless we can devise more and even more poorly designed studies with small sample sizes.

    On a more serious note: great summary! It’s funny you should be posting this now. I spent a good deal of Thursday reading up on running biomechanics and kinesiology, after having my interested piqued by your picante podiatry polemic, and concluded thusly to my brother in an email:

    “Barefoot running is mostly about (1) the pleasure of groundfeel and (2) using groundfeel to accelerate adoption of good running form, due to the greater feedback involved. Minimalist shoes/sandals work for everything else, if that’s your thing.”

    My brother has been trying to transition to barefooting for almost a year, but his feet remain tender, so I told him not to torture himself, his NB minimalist shoes are probably just fine.

    It’s interesting you think even over-engineered shoes could be a viable option for some. Would you say that’s only after growing up in them and adapting to the gait they provoke? Or even for children?