Why sweeping generalizations aren’t best for most runners

Barefoot is bad!Every movement has a counter-movement. Barefoot running is no exception, having recently been met with its share of backlash from skeptics and naysayers. While open discussion and objective critique are healthy responses to any fad, a recently published article – Why barefoot isn’t best for most runners – went a step too far with its distorted claims, never mind snarky attitude, to leave untouched.

Let’s walk through (shod or bare, I don’t care) some of the article’s most shining moments.

Seasoned members of staff can normally categorise runners at first glance … people looking for Vibrams are usually already wearing Vibrams, which is something of a giveaway. They also tend to look disgusted when you tell them that the shop doesn’t stock them, as though the sale of more traditional running shoes was some sort of conspiracy.

I’d like to start by commending the author for admitting that he and the other shoe store employees outright judge their customers based solely on appearance. I’ll be sure to avoid your store. On the other hand, they’ve sparked my curiosity with their mind-reading powers that enable them to detect paranoia over shoe conspiracy from just a facial expression. Of course, every shop should be free to stock only their chosen products. But if they decide to exclude an entire shoe category, they should be willing to accept that some customers will be disappointed by the limited options.

The problem is that we also didn’t evolve to run on roads. Or if we did, the evolutionary process that built the roads was the same one that designed the cushioned running shoe.

We can argue the evolution argument until we’re blue in the face, but for now there is no clear answer. Yes, it’s true neither modern shoes nor concrete existed until relatively recently. Sure, our bodies haven’t yet perfectly adapted to either. However, we also certainly haven’t evolved to remain sedentary 60% of our waking hours, rely on machines for transportation, stare at electronic screens or consume highly processed, packaged foods. But we’re an innovative and adaptable species and are surviving fine (for now) in the face of these rapid changes. The more immediate question, rather than how our ancestors ran, is what’s best for the modern runner. There’s no evidence (correct me if you can find some!) that 1) roads are worse for runners than dirt or grass, or 2) cushioned running shoes actually protect against the alleged “dangers” of modern running surfaces. Researchers have just begun to study the relationship between footwear and injuries, and the jury is still out. Thus far, there has been a lot of conflicting evidence, depending on the particular study methods and population, suggesting that the answer isn’t as simple as modeling our running after Grok.

When people were following the “Paleo diet” from necessity rather than whimsy, their life expectancy was probably in the 20s, if they were lucky.

How is the paleo diet relevant? The author appears to be critiquing barefoot running by debunking a completely independent lifestyle choice. I’m unaware of any correlation between footwear preference and dietary habits. In fact, I know several barefoot runners (@caitymccardell, @KenBobSaxton, myself) who are vegetarian or vegan, which one could argue is the antithesis of paleo.

For those who are planning to spend £100 or more on barefoot shoes to emulate Bannister, it should be noted that you can buy plimsolls for £4 on eBay.

Agreed. Spending $100+ on shoes is absurd. All the more reason to go barefoot. It’s free.

When I see people out running in barefoot shoes, they never look as if they’re having a particularly good time … Most people who use barefoot shoes admit to having to run less because of the pressure on their joints. For someone who enjoys running long distances and the feeling of having a bit of a spring in their step, the choice of barefoot shoes is therefore a bit baffling.

Sure, maybe those runners are miserable. Sure, maybe it’s because of their shoes, or maybe it’s because of the judgmental grimace on a certain gawker’s face. We’ll never know. But rather than speculate about another runner’s experience, why not just ask them? As one who actually runs barefoot and knows other barefoot runners, I can attest that my barefoot runs are often far more freeing and exhilarating than my shod runs. The spring in our step is precisely why we prefer to go bare. When running barefoot you literally feel that spring, conferred by the awakened, elastic arch and tendons of the foot. As for the relationship between barefoot running and joint pain (or lack thereof), look no further than some actual research.

A recent study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, however, supports what I’ve learned from talking to customers who have experimented with barefoot shoes … Half of them (study participants) began running in Vibram FiveFingers shoes gradually, following the guidelines set out on Vibram’s website, while the control group continued to run as normal. After 10 weeks, the control group had remained the same, but 10 out of the 19 runners who had transitioned to Vibram FiveFingers showed raised levels of bone marrow edema (a buildup of fluid similar to bruising) in their feet. The worry is that the barefoot running trend is a fairly recent one, and most of the study’s runners with raised levels of bone marrow edema wouldn’t actually have noticed an injury yet – many of the injuries caused by barefoot shoes may be lurking just around the corner.

This – the only piece of solid evidence presented – is once again misconstrued to support the “barefoot is bad” argument. Just a few of the flaws to this interpretation, which have been thoroughly detailed elsewhere, include:

1. The study used a transition protocol that was far more aggressive than experts recommend (Vibram has since changed their guidelines).

2. Many of the subjects didn’t even follow protocol, increasing their mileage more rapidly than advised.

3. Some edema can be part of a healthy response that leads to bone strengthening, indicating that the bone is appropriately adapting to a new stressor. The MRIs could not distinguish between normal edema and signs of injury.

Most running shops will now offer gait analysis, with the aim of selecting the type of shoes most suitable to the individual’s running style, body type and the surface they are planning to run on.

Note the term “aim”. Regardless of the intention, such recommendations are meaningless if their underlying assumptions are flawed (see herehere and here for why).

One final editorial note: By definition, barefoot running requires bare feet. Any individual’s beef with minimalist shoes bears little weight on the “goodness” or “badness” of barefoot running.

Rather than make a convincing argument for the author’s footwear preference, commentaries like this exemplify the absurdity of the growing barefoot versus shod derision. Get ready to defend yourselves, runners. Next up is the great headband versus hat debate!

A special shout-out to @akiraoc for bringing this article to my attention!

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2 thoughts on “Why sweeping generalizations aren’t best for most runners

  1. pseudo-science is my favorite science of all. This person does know that when you stress bones they become stronger right?

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