Sunday, November 10, 2013

Running Without Lying (To Ourselves Or Each Other)

The truth about barefoot running is that the truth about barefoot running is hard to find. But so far, it really does seem to be better than running in cushy-motion-controlling-arch-supporty shoes. So let's be honest: Barefooters hurt their feet a lot, more research is needed, and we should be a bit confused about all of this in the mean time.




I've been running for about five years now. But I wasn't really a runner until four years ago when, like many, I read Born to Run and fell deeply in love. Immediately upon finishing the book, I started training barefoot, transitioned to minimalist running shoes (specifically Vibram KSOs), and vowed to one day run an ultramarathon. I even brainstormed ways of testing out persistence hunting for myself.

For those who've never heard of this stuff, here are the central claims that came to fuel the barefoot running movement.
  1. Distance running is central to human evolutionary history. We evolved to run great distances--as in a good hundred miles or so at a time--pursuing prey relentlessly and forcing it to trot until it keels over from exhaustion. While we're certainly not built for speed, we're good enough at endurance to be deadly.
  2. The cushy footwear you'll find on display at any athletics store--arranged according to arch support, motion control, and activity type--is largely responsible for the majority of running injuries. It encourages landing on the heel rather than the front of the foot; it enables weak, atrophied, useless foot muscles (the true nature of "flat feet"); and it prevents pronation of the foot, which is a biomechanical feature rather than a defect to be corrected by orthotics. As a result, shod runners collide with the ground much harder than do barefoot runners, and most of the shock goes straight through the heel and knee, rather than into the foot and calf muscles that have evolved to take it.
  3. Running is good for you. Shoes and poor form are not. Everyone should run like the Tarahumara: barefoot or in minimalist footwear, in short, quick steps, with a forefoot strike instead of a heel strike, and probably not on concrete.
I originally set out in this post to write a well-reasoned discussion of the evidence for these claims. Last time I looked, no such thing existed; there was an awful lot of cheering, hype, and speculation, but almost no evaluation of actual evidence not taken directly from Born to Run. To my delight, this time I discovered that someone has already done it for me--and done it well.

The barefoot running sequence at Condensed Science has three main parts. The first discusses the evolutionary basis for barefoot running. The second is about biomechanics. Third is an analysis of injury rates in running, and it's the one wherein the author seriously impressed me by explaining what we actually do and don't know at this point rather than merely arguing for her favorite side.

In Summary


Yeah, we may well have been "born to run". Given that, runners are injured at surprisingly high rates: Somewhere around half of us are injured each year. You're more likely to end up with joint injuries if you run in conventional athletic shoes, and you're more likely to injure your feet if you run barefoot-ish (You don't say!). You're definitely less likely overall to be injured if you run barefoot, so even though Vibrams do not in fact prevent all injury, they're better by comparison. Biomechanics is complicated, and relevant studies are sparse; it is ok to be uncertain and to make the least bad guess based on whatever evidence is available.

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ETA: Just to be clear, I'm making no claims here about walking.

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