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Friday, January 27, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, and Barefoot Statistics 2: A Follow-up

It's been a little over a week since I published the article "Lies, Damn Lies, and Barefoot Statistics" about the use of scientific studies to support or defend barefoot running as "the best" option for injury-free running.  Since then it's been passed around the Internet more than a celebrity sex tape.  There was a lot of great discussion in the comment section...which is rare.  Usually I just get male enhancement spam down there.

In fact, another unusual thing happened.  Industry people actually read my blog, and were moved enough to comment.  I'm always excited to move people to rational thought.  Usually I only inspire stomach discomfort, and a nagging feeling in people that their time has been wasted.  So I thought those comments were worthy of a follow-up post.

The first comment is from Dan Fairbanks (at least the relevant parts of it), owner of the Born to Run shoe store in Washington.  His store is something that I hope we see a lot more of in the future: a store that actually sells a decent selection of minimal shoes. 

"I have read the studies by Daniel Lieberman and his associates and I agree that they are not claiming that they have come out with the final scientific word that says that barefoot/minimalist shoe running is better than traditional shoe running.  Daniel Lieberman and his associates have, however, done these two studies and they have some noteworthy substance in making the case as to why barefoot/minimalist shoe and forefoot striking is better.

People follow and are inspired by those who have strong convictions about why they are doing something. For example, people buy Apple products, not primarily because of how or what Apple makes, but because they know why they make such products, which is because they believe in challenging the status quo and they deeply subscribe to the motto to 'think different.' Apple's 'why' leads them to build innovative technology that is intuitive and easy to use and the result is that they make a lot of money. Just because they make more money than almost any other company in the world, doesn't mean that they do it primarily for the money. On the contrary, they do it to 'think different' and that's why people buy Apple products. Similarly, VIVOBAREFOOT, Daniel Lieberman, Christopher McDougall, Barefoot Ted, and The Natural Running Center affiliated stores including Born to Run, do what we do because we too, want to challenge the status quo, and we dream of day when all people can run to their heart's content without injuries.

I believe your goal with this post was well intentioned, which as best I can understand, is to help VIVOBAREFOOT be more sensible about creating claims like "It's Official: Barefoot is Best," so as to not turn off the early majority that Jason Robillard wrote about recently. The problem is that this post does just the opposite. It makes the barefoot community sound very negative and self critical, instead of being united behind a common purpose. Additionally it tears down companies like VIVOBAREFOOT, who are progressing the movement, instead of supporting them.

Personally, I am not concerned about the early majority or the everyday person being turned off by barefoot/minimalist shoe running because of the tenants of it, which is what VIVOBAREFOOT is doing, but because the people they meet or read about that are barefoot runners are not someone they want to emulate.

In conclusion, I challenge the statement 'Don't let some study or some self-proclaimed guru tell you that the way you run is wrong or that the shoes you own aren't "minimal" enough. If what you're doing makes you happy...go with it." That's like telling someone who has been using a broom upside down to sweep the floor, that as long as they are happy with the way they sweep that they shouldn't listen to someone who is telling them that if they turned the broom around and used the brush end that they could sweep the floor more efficiently; Which if they did would undoubtedly make them happier."

The second comment is from Galahad Clark, the managing director of VIVOBAREFOOT; the company whose mass email spawned my rant.

Dear All,

First of all, I would like to apologise for our over-enthusiastic response to Prof. Liebermans research (I've been making and promoting barefoot shoes, against the tide, since 2003 and this was an exciting moment!). We are currently updating our approach.

It is true that nothing is ‘proven’, and it is true that over-striding whilst forefoot striking can be just as injurious as heel striking, and it’s worth noting that the sample set in Dan’s latest study were all elite athletes.  But, ‘twice’ as many injuries and up to 8% more efficient is statistically significant whichever way you slice and dice it.

I would like to echo Dan F’s sentiments (and yes, I am a business owner and have products to sell) that it is coming time to be bold and proud of what we believe in and know to be true. We believe in the bare foot (it’s not about the shoes), we believe that proprioception is the foundation of skill and skillful movement is injury free movement (technique is everything!).

I agree with MGBG’s statistic that if you are 100% happy and injury free heel striking in conventional running shoes, you shouldn’t change what you are doing.  But, equally I would also like to join forces with Dan’s challenge that anybody that buys barefoot shoes (zero drop, anatomic toe box, with soles no more than 6mm thick) and takes the time to transition properly (we would love to show you how at trainingclinic.vivobarefoot.com) and still doesn’t like it (prefers to carry on sweeping with the broom upside down) then I’d be happy to go halves with Dan F on the 10 pairs of conventional running shoes promise.

Uncommon Sense: Barefoot is best, and we’re more enthusiastic than ever to be part of the revolution to encourage anyone that is not happy heel striking in overly padded shoes to re-discover proprioception and good form fore foot running… All our focus is on trying to make the best 'barefoot' products (with maximum proprioception) we can and on creating education for healthy transitions...

Lets join forces and do what we can to help educate the world about the benefits of fore foot strike (barefoot) running that we know and love…

There’s a lot more transition to go!"

I'm excited that these folks took the time to slum it on my blog and present some very valid points.  I also think their points are worth a response.  I always get the last word.  It's my friggen blog!  So here I go!

My response

My original post along with the above reactions illustrate two ways of approaching a problem that the barefoot running community has wrestled with for years.  On the one hand, we have abundant anecdotal evidence that people are running happy, healthy, and injury free while barefoot and in minimal shoes.  Chronic conditions are magically disappearing.  Joy in running is being found again.  Personal records are being overcome.  The mere touch of foot to pavement is curing everything from plantar fascitis to AIDS.     

On the other hand, as of yet we don't have any conclusive research to back up all this anecdotal stuff.  If you believe otherwise, you need to review my original post.  We certainly have studies that suggest what we've been saying is true.  But saying that studies suggest that barefoot is best is a lot different than saying studies show

I can't discount the anecdotal evidence because I'm part of it.  I'm running further, faster, and happier because of barefoot running.  But I also learned in law school that one of the basic laws of logic is "one example (or even several examples) cannot necessarily be extrapolated to apply to everyone".  When someone uses one of the studies in question to say "barefoot is best", they are making a logical leap that just isn't there. 

Dan and I part ways because I refuse to make the leap, and he figures that what's good for the goose is good for the gander.  

That's not a completely unreasonable position.  I wish it could be mine too.  It's hard for me not to hope that barefoot really does turn out to be best.  It certainly is best for me.  I just urge folks like Dan to use caution when making this leap, because I expect that the answer will be a lot more complicated.  I expect the answer to be more like, "barefoot/minimalist is great, but it's not for everyone, and you'll probably be okay in pretty much any lightweight shoe as long as you keep a short cadence".  But that's not as catchy as "barefoot is best" is it?

Does it do our community a disservice to incite this controversy as Dan suggests?  Or to put down the efforts of the leaders of the movement (of which VIVOBAREFOOT is certainly one) when they fuck up? 

I was moved to comment on VIVOs email because its position was so overstated that it sounded like a borderline infomercial.  Barefoot cures running injuries, gives you amazing form, and makes julienne fries?!  And I can get two feet for the price of one?!  I'm supposed to just get behind that and not say anything because they are doing good work to support "the movement"?  Sounds like some commie bullshit to me. 

I think a movement that doesn't look at itself critically succumbs to dogmatism.  In my opinion that's already happened to a large extent.  All you have to do is look at some of the comments in prior post.  Or in the responses to the efforts of myself and Jason by some of the original barefoot gurus.  A lot of it is just the same old talking points thrown back and forth with little thought as to why they are talking points in the first place. 

I'm not saying all of this in order to appeal to any particular group of people (for example, the "early majority").  I do it because I believe in being accurate and honest.  This blog is all about "telling it like it is".  So I can't get behind something so misleading.  A lot of folks saw the email I ranted about and really believed that someone had proved that barefoot was best.  I don't want people to come to barefoot and minimalist running that way.  I don't want them to be conned or misled into it.  You trick people into a cult.  You don't trick them into a more natural way to run. 

We don't have to trick people folks!  We have a great thing going.  It's not like we're selling iceboxes to Eskimos!  Just put out all the facts exactly as they are.  What are we afraid of? 

I want them to come into barefoot or minimalist running after considering all the facts, weighing the alternatives, and making their own decision.  My guess is after seeing everything, they'll more than likely choose my way of running.  But if they don't, and it works for them, I don't know how anyone can tell someone that they aren't doing things the right way.  Well...you could...but you'd be an elitist asshole.

(Abrupt end of rant.) 

I hope Dan and Galahd don't take any of this personally.  They are great folks doing great things.  I'm glad we can have debates like this in our community.  It only makes it stronger. 

Have a great Friday folks!  Go stir up a hornets nest this weekend!


  1. Great News! Running barefoot will enhance your love life 27%!

    There you go; requisite male enhancement spam AND unsubstantiated barefoot claims, all at once.

  2. TL; DR.

    Just kidding. Great stuff, MGBG! I wish it didn't have "damn" in the title or I would use it with one of my classes to reinforce objectivity regarding research and others' interpretations of it. lol. But don't change a thing!

  3. I was actually kind of disturbed by Dan's approach and comments. I'd be extremely reluctant to support a company or products who came from a mindset of "ends justifies the means" - from what I understand, it's ok to mislead people or do whatever it takes to get them to flip a broom around? As a journalist and consumer, that really pushes my buttons.

    That said, I know firsthand the benefits of minimalist/barefoot, and my VIVOs are my #1 trail shoe. They work for me, and I'm going to stick with them and recommend them. They work and they work well. But this whole thing has left me with a sour taste about barefoot shoe companies and their approach to sell products.

  4. I tend to agree with Vanessa. The whole, but you'd be happier if you turn the broom around argument is, for lack of less appropriate terms, bullshit. I don't like being lied to. I also don't like the fact that they are marketing their shoes as "barefoot" shoes, but that's a whole other argument. I understand the fact that they are trying to sell a product, but I don't think tricking your potential consumers is the way to go.

    I'm happy that companies like VIVO, Merrell, and others exist. They do good things for the community, but I think this overzealous barefoot is best marketing is a big mistake and could potentially end up physically hurting the consumer base. By saying studies such as those listed above "show" that barefoot is best, and we sell barefoot shoes, it makes consumers (at least those that don't do their homework) think that if they buy the shoes all their running woes will be cured. As if VIVO or Merrell or [insert other company here] is rubbing some magic Joo Joo all over their shoes and that is what is making them run better and pain free.

    The barefoot movement has and should always be about better running form first, kick ass shoes second. It's nice that we have a selection of shoes to pick from now a days, but it's disheartening to see new barefooters picking up the shoes before trying the real thing and before being educated on what ACTUALLY is making them run better. It's not joo joo folks, and if you think it is, I have several bottles of Michael Jordan's special juice to sell. (10 points for a spacejam reference?)

  5. The biggest fallacy for me that the 'barefoot is allways best' camp uses is that running barefoot will mean that your running injury free.

    Its simply not the case.

    Barefooters suffer their fair share on injuries too... the injuries might be located in different places but there are still plenty of injuries.

    ...oh but i forget, if a barefooter gets injured its there own fault for doing TMTS, if a shod runner is injured its clearly the shoes fault.

    The possibility that some people are just not genetically disposed to be runners, or to complete the volume they do might have nothing to do with it

    ..oh dear i think im digging myself into a hole of blasphemy

    is all redemed if i do my second run today barefoot like this mornings was ;)

    1. "..oh but i forget, if a barefooter gets injured its there own fault for doing TMTS, if a shod runner is injured its clearly the shoes fault." right there with you. This lack of honesty (failing a better word) with ourselves kills me.

      Your response hits right where i sit now. I am an injured barefoot runner, and my injury was directly related to barefoot running. I love running barefoot, but I'd be lying to say i wasn't a little gunshy about going "full monty" when I'm ready to run again in a few weeks.

      This has caused me to think a lot about the "everybody should run barefoot" idea and i can't say I support it. I am much more in the camp of "run the healthiest way for YOU." Which, of course, can only be determined by the individual.

      I'm one of those nerdy overthinking Google research types and love to get more and more info on a subject that interests me. The longer you dig into this topic, the more validity the middle ground has: Barefoot may be great, but you may also be better served by using what has worked for you for x amount of time. Really, just think it through and decide through trial and error what works for YOU.

  6. Basically, it’s a hot trend, and everyone is trying to build their brand, whether they’re barefoot purists, certified trainers, bloggers, or shoemakers. The points that you (and Jason, and I, and a bunch of other people) have been making are so generally true as to be trivial, yet important to make nonetheless, because a lot of people haven’t mastered the basic cynicism crucial to any kind of informed consumerism. With any kind of health or fitness trend, you have to just try it and see if it’s for you. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t do it. If you do it and get hurt, don’t do it. If you do it and enjoy it and don’t get hurt, keep doing it.

  7. Paul, you bring up a point I'll be talking about in the coming weeks. It's basically about how we need to start talking not just form as a way to cure injuries, but also how much people are running. More than the type of footwear used or not used, I think most running injuries come not from running form but from excessive miles per week or speed.

  8. Couldn't agree more MGBG. Overtraining is the leading cause of injuries. Give whatever part of the body you're working 48 hours to recover. On alternate days do something that complements it (rowing or cycling or weights are good complements to running). Spend one day a week doing no exercise. If you still hurt, stop doing what you're doing and do it differently (less, different angle, higher/lower reps, etc.) or do something else.

  9. I must say I agree with MGBG, Paul, and Tim. I am a barefoot runner who is injured with both PF and AT right now. Kind of funny because those are two of the specific injuries that barefoot running is supposed to alleviate. I increased distance as well as speed at the same time and hurt myself. I had never had an injury back when I ran shod, but I've had 3 now if you count PF and AT separately, since changing over to barefoot running in the last ten months. Yes I had nagging pain in my knees and back when I was a shod runner, but never an actual injury. That being said, I will never go back to being a shod runner in the normal shoes of today because I now have zero back pain and zero knee pain. I just have to learn my bodies new limits and I think I'll be fine.

    I was really turned off by the comments of Dan and the misleading email that VivoBarefoot sent out. I as a consumer want to be well informed but not lied to. I don't think we need to stretch truths or lie in order to spread the barefoot/minimalist movement. Glad to see that MGBG and Jason are both trying to persuade people in a more reasonable way that average people can relate to.

  10. I believe what is really meant when someone says "barefoot is best" is this: "Based almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence your risk of developing bodily injuries and chronic pain outside of the foot may decrease when running unshod or nearly unshod compared to running in highly supportive shoes". Of course, something like that doesn't fit neatly into a headline. And it absolutely has not been proven and won't be until long-term, longitudinal studies are done to assess the impacts to bodily injury when running shod versus unshod. (I would guess the only institution to care enough to spend the money on such things is the US Department of Defense.)

    Just like when the term risk is used in the medical community, individual results can be different from the averaged population. When professionals talk of risk they are applying that term against the generalized population which inherently takes away individual variation. Your own results may vary. Some dogmatic barefoot bozos don't seem to understand that because they think barefoot works equally well for everyone.

    You are your own physician when trying out the "barefoot drug". At this point, only YOU can determine whether barefoot works for you or not.

  11. Thank you for throwing away the red herring. It was beginning to smell something fierce ;)

  12. For once, I'm glad to be lumped in with Christian. :-)

    I completely agree with Christian's points. We often talk about barefoot running as if our ideas are indisputable facts. I think we're on the right track, but running gait is unbelievably complex. There are a lot of unanswered questions. Anecdotal evidence supports many of our claims, but we tend to ignore the anecdotal claims of the "other side." How can we explain the large number of people that run in foot coffins but don't get injured? How about the Hoka phenomenon? Is barefoot really better? How do all shoes fit into the equation? If the running gait we teach is better, why? How much variability exists between individuals?

    All of these are questions we cannot answer. If we don't approach our own beliefs with a degree of skepticism, we have no hope of actually finding the answers.

    Furthermore, some opinions are somewhat tainted by profit motive. If an entity is making money off the premise that barefoot running is better, it hurts their credibility when making such claims. Like Christian, I'm hoping my own calls for a more skeptical approach are strengthened by the fact I'm arguing against my own self interest. I'm not doing this to sell books. I'm doing this to help people. We're on to something special, but we're a LONG way from understanding it. Some of the claims that are tossed around do the more to hurt the movement than help. Until we have enough research to start a comprehensive meta-analysis of the data, we're not going to get clear answers. Until then, we'd all benefit from a little more critical thought.

  13. MGBG, really enjoying your blog esp. given you're a BF runner. Research (the real, peer-reviewed stuff not just what you can Google) shows pretty clearly two factors that are consistent in many studies on injuries:
    1. a previous injury that hasn't been rehabbed properly or sufficiently.
    2. excessive running (volume and/or intensity)

    Of course running injuries are multifactoral but specific biomechanical and anatomical factors (incl. form) have conflicting evidence regarding their contribution to injury.

    As a strength coach and running coach who does form analysis and training I think form is an important consideration. And shoes (or lack of) affects form. I think the evidence points in the direction of working to make your form as efficient as you can but we always have to consider form in context of an overall training program that manages volume, intensity and recovery.



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