Friday, June 18, 2010

The Barefoot Running Controversy

A few weeks ago I read an article by Matt Fitzgerald ( about the rise in the number of injured runners from running barefoot.  Matt quotes several podiatrists or physical therapists who say they are seeing an increased number of runners with foot injuries caused by barefoot (or nearly barefoot) running.  He also recounts his own experience with running in Vibram Five Fingers, becoming injured and quickly returning to regular running shoes.  The podiatrists/PT's basically say that most people need a shoe that helps them be able to run, as most of us are not "born to run" as the popular book by Chris McDougall contends, but are biomechanically disadvantaged in some way.  Matt ends the article pretty much agreeing with the opinion that running barefoot is not for everyone, or even most of us.

At the time I was entrenched in shower/event preparations (see last post), but I have been thinking a lot about this, and since then have read other people's opinions on the matter also...

From the barefoot running blog I follow:

And from Steven Sashen (, who comments on HBO's Real Sports feature on barefoot running.

    ...all the while continuing to run and walk in my huaraches...

A little background...

I don't (for the most part) do any running in my huaraches on pavement, it's mostly on the trails in the park, which are mulched over a sandy dirt with pine needles and other leaves in places.  (There are areas that the only way to get to the next trail is to run on pavement, but not many.)  I run about half of my runs in my huaraches; otherwise I wear Nike Frees or Nike Moires.  I walk a lot in my huaraches; I wear them for almost all my daily activities outside the home (I go barefoot inside).   I have been doing this since the end of April, so it has been approximately eight weeks.

As a kid growing up, I did A LOT of barefoot running/walking.

When I began running at age 37 I ran barefoot on the beach at least once a week...  until I couldn't run because of the hip--the hip disease that went undiagnosed for five years (see archives: really messed up my whole hip/leg so that I have had to recover/rehab since then.

 ...and I feel that my feet are getting stronger and my hip/leg issues are getting better.

I want to interject here with something that happened a couple weeks ago.  John and I were on a long walk, which we do regularly.  I had made a pair of huaraches for him and this was his first time wearing them.  Now, this was very dumb of us; I don't know why we did it, except that John regularly runs barefoot on the beach and does these long walks in flipflops with no problem, so I guess we figured he would be okay.  He wasn't--got several blood blisters on the bottoms of his feet.  So at about two miles out from home, he decided he couldn't go any further, and I said I would run home and get the car and come back for him.  I had my huaraches on and took off running and...  something really neat happened.  It was an asphalt path; I started out pretty slow...  and then my form gradually changed, naturally.  It was different from my running on the soft trails in the park.  I felt I was running closer to the ground, moving over the road.  And I had no issues, no pain.  It was such a nice little run!  It was only a couple miles, and I haven't tried it since then, as I was in Wisconsin just after that, running in shoes; I think I will need to work up to it again.

Now, I want to say that I greatly respect Matt's opinions; he's a scientist and I believe he bases all of his writing on evidence as much as he possibly can.  I have quite a few of his books; presently I am reading his Racing Weight and a book he co-wrote with Brad Hudson, Run Faster From the 5k to the Marathon.  In his Brain Training for Runners, he praises running in minimalist footware; he tells how he trained, " much as 60 miles a week in them...  and far from creating any problems of their own, these shoes clearly helped prevent injuries that my previous shoes were contributing to."  He says that (at that time, I guess), he also ran in Vibram Five Fingers, and that he is "...fully convinced that minimalist running shoes are less likely to cause injuries than conventional shoes..."   He qualifies these statements by saying that all of this "...has not been subjected to formal scientific evaluation."

In his recent article, Matt now says that, "despite easing into virtual barefoot running very slowly, I developed calf, ankle extensor and achilles strains immediately and could not quickly overcome them, so I went back to running full-time in running shoes."

The problem I see here is that he says that he "could not quickly overcome them..."

I have to agree that, of course, there are those who should not run barefoot or in minimalist shoes.  Many, many people have biomechanical issues that require special measures that enable them to run.  Many people have worn shoes all their lives, never going barefoot either walking or running, and should not expect to be able to run right away, or even after several weeks or months, in minimalist footware.  It could take many months or even years of building strength and changing tissue structure to be able to run barefoot.

But, even though I respect Matt's change of opinion (I think that it takes more courage to change your position based on evidence than to just stand by your position based on emotions), I think that, for those who can do so, running barefoot (or nearly) is the way to go.  I have seen my form change and my feet strengthened.  I don't know that I would ever go completely barefoot when running (things on the road--the "ew" and "ouch" factors), or race in huaraches, but rather use the minimalist footware as a tool to help my overall running.

And, of course, running in huaraches is a whole lot of fun!  Isn't that what it's all about anyway?

You just need to be patient and expect it to take as long as it takes.

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