I went and met the interviewer at my local park in Maple Grove last Thursday. It was a lot of fun, and I thought it went really well. The format was a little awkward. It had just gotten done raining buckets, and it looked like it was about to start up again. So we decided to combine the interview and photo shoot into one. That meant that I answered questions while running back and forth in a 10 foot line past the photographers camera. It also meant a lot of looking up and pretending to stare at something wonderful in the distance when I would have much rather been looking down to make sure I wasn't stepping on anything.
The interviewer asked a lot of good questions, and seemed to know his stuff. He already knew about the famous Harvard barefoot running study concerning the differences between running barefoot and in shoes. He knew the terms "barefoot shoes" and "minimal shoes". And he some general knowledge about some of the more common aspects of barefoot running culture; Born to Run, Vibram Fivefingers, etc.
Given the interviewers knowledge, I thought that this would a favorable and well-researched article on the benefits of barefoot running. Then the article ran in this Thursday's paper. Needless to say, I was a little taken aback. It wasn't what I expected.
Rather than summarize the article's contents, I thought I would just copy the whole thing on here for your reading pleasure. Along with some fun little editorial comments by yours truly of course (insert evil laugh here). Comments are in italics.
Runners put their (bare) foot down
- Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
- Updated: June 2, 2011 - 11:05 AM
There's a boom in barefoot running, with advocates arguing that it's healthier than running in shoes. But not everyone is sure of that.
Well, there's a boom in running in Vibram Fivefinger ugly toe shoes. Of course, folks who do it call that "barefoot running", as did the author. But barefoot running is, and will likely remain, a small minority of the total running population.
Christian Peterson has heard the questions so many times that he has stock answers ready: Yes, he knows that he's running barefoot. No, he didn't run so fast that he came out of his shoes. And, for the record, he's not crazy.
Well...I'm crazy. Just not about shoes.
He has one more answer that typically comes as surprise: It's not painful. "People are always asking: Does that hurt?" said Peterson, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Barefoot Runners Society. "No, it feels good."
It's more than just good. It's liberating.
Although logic would seem to dictate that slapping exposed flesh onto asphalt running paths would lead to all sorts of uncomfortable problems, a study at Harvard University found that for some runners, going barefoot actually can reduce injuries or mitigate repetitive stress maladies.
Researchers at the school's Skeletal Biology Lab conducted the study last year after noticing an explosion in the number of barefoot runners. There has long been the occasional one taking part in elite competitions -- South African distance runner Zola Budd, who set world records in the mid-1980s, probably is the best known -- but the new breed of barefoot runners come from the ranks of casual runners.
Running barefoot wasn't an occasional phenomenon until the 1980s. It's been around for millions of years. And even in the modern era, it was actually pretty commonplace, and most of the running shoes available were very minimal. A good read on the subject is A Brief History of Barefoot Running by Roger Robinson.
"There's a barefoot frenzy," said Lisa Zeman, a physical therapist for the running program of Regions Hospital's Rehabilitation Center and an avid runner herself. "You can't open a running magazine today without finding an article talking about barefoot running."
Again, there's a MINIMAL SHOE frenzy. These magazines might interview the one barefoot runner in a given city, but the trend that they are really describing is one toward a more natural running shoe.
The Twin Cities barefoot club has about 150 members, but Peterson knows that there are more than that doing it. "When I'm out running, I often see other barefoot runners," he said. "I always make sure to invite them to come to one of our monthly group runs."
Actually I've never seen another barefoot runner outside of my group runs with the Barefoot Runners Society. That's a misquote. I told the interviewer that often see folks nowadays in Vibram Fivefingers who think they are running barefoot though. But I do try to approach them and let them know about our little club nevertheless.
The local numbers are likely to jump again after this weekend. A forum Saturday on barefoot running features Christopher McDougall, whose 2009 bestselling book, "Born to Run," is generally considered a major impetus behind the barefoot boom.
I'm so excited! Christopher McDougall is like the Justin Bieber of barefoot running. And if that's the case, I'm the tween girl that screams and cries when I see him.
That was the case for Peterson, of Maple Grove. "When I read that, I decided to give it a try," he said. "I was going to work it into my regular training; maybe run barefoot one day a week or something. But it was the best run of my life. I haven't run in shoes again."
Alright...very well done and accurate rendition of the research and benefits of barefoot running. Plus, he made me sound funny and charming. Not hard to do...but still.
Stepping into the debate
The barefoot running bonanza -- which also includes runners who wear so-called minimalist shoes that protect the soles of their feet from abrasions -- has generated a marathon of controversy over whether it actually prevents injuries. The critical aspect of the debate, according to Zeman, is that running barefoot can reduce injuries, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will.
Dun, du du dun, du du dun, du du dun BONANNNNNZAAAAA!!
The argument hinges on the theory that the modern-day running shoe, with its heavily padded heel and motion-stability insole, has changed the natural running form. Many runners tend to land heavily on their heels, confident that the shoe will absorb the punishment. But barefoot runners don't have that luxury. They run the way our pre-fitness-shoe ancestors did, landing softly on the balls of their feet.
"They place their foot on the ground rather than plop it," Zeman said. "One of the first things many barefoot runners realize is that they run much quieter than when they're wearing shoes."
Reducing the force of the landing also reduces the impact that the ankles, knees and hips must absorb, a definite benefit for their durability. But that's not the end of the discussion. Running shoes have developed thick padding and motion-stability aids for a reason: They help.
Ummmmmm....no. There is no research to support to proposition that thick padding and motion-stability helps. In fact, research shows that despite "innovations" in running shoe technology (i.e. more cushion and more motion control), injury rates among shod runners remain the same as always. It has even been suggested recently (by a Nike researcher no less) that motion control shoes are actually causing injuries.
"If you have an ankle, knee or hip issue, you need that protection," Zeman said. "If you have any kind of a weakness, it's going to come up fast" once you start running barefoot.
So here's Zeman's theory on shoes. If you have underlying weaknesses in your body, you should cover them up with shoes and never address them instead of finally fixing them by starting your barefoot journey. The reason that we barefooters recommend you "start slow" is precisely because we recognize that you may have some muscle and skeletal weaknesses that have been muffled by your footwear. Taking it slow will mean that these issues don't become problems. You can finally strengthen those atrophied muscles and get rid of those issues once and for all.
She's not just talking about occasional runners who go out for a 3-mile jog on Saturday mornings. Kealy Malmgren was putting in 30 miles a week when she decided to shed her running shoes.
I ran 30 miles a week before I shed my shoes as well. I was in paaaaaaaain in my shoes and couldn't go more than 10 miles. And within 6 months, I felt so great I ran my first half marathon, and a marathon one month later.
"At first, it was wonderful," she said. "I didn't feel every little pebble the way I was afraid I would. My cardio rate improved. My speed improved. I quickly switched to landing on the balls of my feet, so I felt that my landing was better."
Sounds pretty awesome huh? Wait for iiiiiiiiiit....
But within a month, an intense pain developed in her Achilles tendons. After getting Malmgren on a treadmill and videotaping her from various angles, Zeman noticed that she was dropping one of her hips with each stride of the opposite leg. The strain from that, which previously had been absorbed by her shoes, had worked its way down to her Achilles tendons.
BUM BUM BUUUUUUUUUUM!! UH OHHHHH!!! SOUNDS LIKE A CASE OF TOO MUCH TOO SOON!
A couple of things. So I guess this Zeman lady is featured as the story's counterpoint to barefoot running later in the article. Here's what I find interesting. In support of barefoot running, the author cites the Harvard study, which is pretty normal for these sorts of articles. As the counterpoint, the article talks with some random PT who happens to have dealt with someone who had a bad experience with barefoot running. Does that give Zeman the credentials to take up nearly 3/4ths of the article like she does? I don't think so.
You know what would make a great counterpoint? Some empirical research showing that barefoot is bad and shoes are good. But where's the empirical research on the benefits of shoes?! Oh...that's right....there ISN'T ANY!!
I also take issue with the author's attempted point using Ms. Malmgren, which I believe is "if this random 30 miles per week runner can't do it, it's not for you either!" Barefoot runners come from the ranks of the elite and the noob alike. I know folks who switched to barefoot after running an ultra, and those who are both running AND running barefoot for the first time at the same time. The author shouldn't be giving the advice that because this 30 mpw person got hurt, that everyone who runs less will too. The reason she got hurt has nothing to do with how many miles she ran per week before her injury. Everyone starts differently when it comes to barefoot running. For some, the transition is immediate. For others, it takes months to get back to their previous mileage.
Anyway, back to the too much too soon point. Achilles tendonosis and hip imbalance don't go hand in hand. Pain in the calfs, ankles and achilles tendons is pretty common when first starting out barefoot running. And it's primarily an OVERUSE injury that is caused by CALF weakness. My diagnosis of the reason she got her injury? She didn't start slow, and she didn't listen to her body. The result was that a discomfort that she could have fixed by resting a day or so became a full-on injury.
One thing this article assumes is that barefoot running caused her hip imbalance. I doubt it. My guess is that if you videotaped her running in her cushioned trainers, this same hip imbalance would be present. Possibly with a bunch of other form issues. Hip imbalance is a symptom of muscular imbalance...mostly likely in the glutes. Your butt isn't connected to your feet people.
After a six-week break to let her tendons heal, she returned to running -- in shoes.
That's too bad. Seemed like she really enjoyed barefoot running. I hope she gives it another try. My question to her is this. If your PT found out you have a hip imbalance, why not deal with that problem instead of covering it up again and hoping that it magically goes away? If you have a form issue, work on your form. If you have a muscle imbalance, work on that. Shoes aren't the panacea for all of your running problems. In fact, they are probably the reason she had a hip imbalance in the first place!
The Harvard study stopped well short of recommending that all runners shed their shoes. It called for more in-depth study of barefoot running, which Zeman wholeheartedly supports.
"Right now, we don't have nearly enough data to support either side," she said. "We need data on runners of varying weights, varying ages, some who run a few a miles a week and some who run every day. At this point, we can't say with certainty whether barefoot running is better or worse."
I agree with this point. The Harvard study doesn't draw any conclusions about whether shod or barefoot running is better for your body. More study is needed. But it did recommend that folks switch to a forefoot strike, which is best accomplished through barefoot or minimalist running.
Anyway, the articles argument here jumps to conclusions. One can't say that because there is no evidence to support the other side's position, that position is wrong. It's not! That's why I believe that the most important thing to consider in making the decision whether to go shod or unshod is YOUR HAPPINESS! Does running how you are currently running make you happy? Then do it. Although I will always content until the end of my barefoot superhero days that you will always be happier with LESS SHOE, if for no other reason than because you'll have less weight to drag around.
So, should people try it? "I get at least one call a week asking me that," she said. "And I always say, 'It's not that simple.' If you're already injured, then the answer is no. But if you are not injured, if you don't have any problems, go ahead and try it if you want."
I think this advice cuts a little too broadly. Many people have been forced out of shoes into barefoot running precisely because they ARE injured, and barefoot running was the only way they could run painfree. I would say that better advice would be that those with injuries that prevent them from running altogether should certainly not try barefoot running. They should be resting and healing. But those with chronic, nagging injuries such as plantar fascitis, shin splints, and IT band syndrome that don't seem to get better no matter how long you rest and recover might be well-served to give barefoot running a try. It might be the only thing that allows them to run painfree.
Peterson has one warning, though: Be ready for some odd looks.
Yes. I've almost caused car accidents.
"There is something counterintuitive about it," he said of running without shoes. "When I get those looks, I want to stop and tell them, 'We're actually normal people.'"
I actually want to tell them to watch the road! But a point I've been trying to make to the media recently is that people of all walks of life shed their shoes and barefoot run. They aren't all hippie weirdos. They come from all occupations and walks of life. You are not weird or wrong because you want to go barefoot. You are different. Different doesn't mean bad.
THE END! Thank goodness!
Aaaaaanyway....as you probably imagined I was fine with this story until that random physical therapist opened her yap. I mean...I sounded great...but that's to be expected. Not only am I well-spoken, but I'm funny and likeable. But had I known that the article would have taken such a negative stance on the topic, I wouldn't have agreed to be a part of it.
Here's the thing. Most people hear about barefoot running through the mainstream media. So a lot of times, the first contact that people have with the topic will be through articles like this. I don't mind if an article provides both sides of the issue. I think that's only fair. But when an article comes out with a ton of BS and misinformation, it's hard for the barefoot community to overcome. If your first experience with something is negative, you're not likely to do it again. I think that's unfortunate for lots of folks who would otherwise be interested in trying barefoot running for themselves.
Anyway, articles like this show that there is a ton of disinformation out there on the subject of barefoot running. That's why it's essential that folks new to the sport get advice from reliable sources. This writer probably spent all of a couple of hours gathering sources for his article. Folks like myself, Jason Robillard, and Ken Bob Saxton have spent years acquiring barefoot running knowledge.
Whether you like it or not, if you barefoot run, you're an advocate for the sport. People will use you as a point of contact to learn more. They will ask you questions. They will talk about you. It is essential that you put your best bare foot forward and provide them with useful and accurate information. Be a good first impression. You might be the only contact a person ever has with the sport.
Cheers folks! Happy Friday!