Sunday, May 18, 2014

Is barefoot better? Shoes in the news

“How one runs probably is more important than what is on one’s feet, but what is on one’s feet may affect how one runs.”

three great runners show nearly identical form, which includes short, fast strides
that allow them to strike the ground with the whole or mid-foot, rather than the heel,
and to lean forward from the ankles with their hips above their ankles.
photo (from video footage): The Balanced Runner

Quoted there is Harvard University professor Daniel Lieberman stressing the importance of proper running form, rather than running in a particular type of shoe, yet hinting at the fact that heavily cushioned sneakers/trainers allow runners to land on their heels, which can (negatively) affect their running form.

In fact, contrary to suggestions and claims by the shoe manufacturers, highly-cushioned soles have not been shown to reduce running-related injuries and may be associated with higher rates of various "running" injuries.

running shoe companies touted health gains
from wearing certain shoes

The new shoe in town

With the popularity of the book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall — with its barefoot-running Tarahumara heroes and its questioning of the running shoe industry's efforts to lead so many millions of runners down the road to dependence on shoe cushioning, associated heel striking, and, possibly, related foot and leg injuries — many thousands of runners began to try a different tactic.

Vibram's 5-finger "barefoot" shoes
photo: Utah Foot
They explored their inner prehistoric hunter, changing their running form to take shorter, quicker strides and land on their mid-foot, rather than their heel.

Even more than changing their form, they started buying and wearing those quirky new "barefoot" shoes, the ones that look like gloves and that first made headlines for being new and weird.

They're in the headlines again now, but this time for being in the middle of a class-action lawsuit.

The shoe in question is the Vibram 5-finger -- "minimalist" shoes that are barely there. The soles are super-thin and flexible and cover the feet but provide no cushioning: a "foot condom," as more than one article has called them.

(1) Strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs (2) Improve range of motion in the ankles, feet, and toes (3) Stimulate neural function important to balance and agility (4) Eliminate heel lift to align the spine and improve posture (5) Allow the foot and body to move naturally
Vibram's health claims:
is it true that they're due to the shoe?
image from: barefootr
The idea behind wearing shoes that mimic not wearing shoes (i.e. barefoot) is to encourage proper running form and lead to stronger feet and legs and, therefore. fewer injuries. This is, in fact, what Vibram claimed.

Apparently, however, exaggerated health claims are not the sole (heehee) trait of major cushiony running shoe manufacturers.

We've perhaps come full commercial circle, as Vibram, the original "barefoot" shoe maker, has just settled a class-action lawsuit for making health claims about its shoes without scientific evidence to back them up.  Oops.

Barefoot logic

The concept of barefoot running shoes sounds logical enough. We evolved barefoot. We were born barefoot. We watch those amazing East African runners win the big races, after growing up walking around barefoot (though it turns out not all did).

In fact, long enough ago, all people walked and ran barefoot, because that was all we had, and if it worked for our ancestors, it must be good today too.

The barefoot running logic goes: By shifting away from all that heel cushioning provided by normal running shoes, a runner will naturally begin to land more lightly and near the balls of the feet with less pounding than when s/he landed first on the heel. Less pounding should then equal fewer injuries.

However (isn't there always a "However"?), most runners have spent their lives wearing shoes on hard surfaces and have thus been ‘programmed’ to run in the conventional heel-strike manner.

Switching to a new shoe (or no shoe) changes our muscle mass, how muscles move, and which are used. It also changes our sense of position relative to the ground (Reason 3 in the image above), so the changeover needs to be done gradually.

next craze: bare-chest running -- not sure how that will affect
running form but may encourage greater participation
photo: Andy Ambrosius/Patch

So what happens when runners switch to training in barefoot shoes?

Well, that depends on their foot stability, patience in learning how to go barefoot, and running surface.

the benefits of running barefoot!
It takes a long time to build up the necessary musculature, strength, and flexibility in your feet, legs, joints, and connective tissue if you are used to running in cushion-y shoes.

Also, “It’s tough to re-learn how to run.” said University of Wisconsin's Dr. John Porcari, who led a small study comparing pounding on feet from running in normal cushioned running shoes, Vibram 5-fingers, and truly barefoot.

This study found that roughly 50% of runners changed their running form with a switch to barefoot-like shoes. Not all runners will "naturally" gravitate toward a mid- or fore-foot gait, and not all will avoid injury.

Not only do many people still heel-strike even with barefoot shoes, but also most runners now run on hard, artificial surfaces, such as concrete or asphalt, instead of grass or dirt. Running in barefoot shoes on these hard surfaces does not mimic running barefoot on softer surfaces, as our predecessors did, and it may lead to foot and ankle injuries.

provides cushioning, whether it helps us or not
A separate study found that running in shoes may be more efficient than barefoot, even for experienced barefoot runners, because without shoes, our legs must provide the cushioning. The required leg and foot strengthening to provide this cushioning may, thus, be the basis of Vibram's health claims.

However, according to Dr. Porcari, “Just because you put the Vibrams [or other barefoot shoe] on your feet doesn’t mean you’ll automatically adopt the correct running stride.”

Or, says author Chris McDougall in an interview, "If you change your running form and you run lightly, easily, smoothly, then you can wear whatever you like."

How about you? I know a few people who regularly wear 5-fingers -- do any of you have suggestions for their use (or non-use!)?

Barefoot caveats

While your running FORM matters more than your SHOES, if you do want to try wearing barefoot shoes, you might try using minimalist (small, flexible heel padding) shoes first to ease into the reduction in cushioning that you might be used to. These suggestions are from the American Council on Exercise (ACE):

Take it Easy!

Whether you’re planning to run barefoot or while donning Vibrams, follow these tips from American Council on Exercise:
Walk first. Give your body time to acclimate and adapt,” he says. “Start walking in them first and let your body get used to it.”

Ease on in. “If you’re currently doing 30 miles a week, try a quarter of that wearing the Vibrams or barefoot, and do the rest in your regular shoes.”
Change it up. McCall says it’s key to change your running style to fit barefoot running. In particular, focus on running with short strides while landing lightly on your forefoot.

Some sites and studies on barefoot running

The ACE study from Univ. of Wisconsin comparing shoes, Vibrams, and bare feet while running

New York Times analysis with research results

Washington Post analysis (summary: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it)

A bit on our species' running history from this blog

One from Runners World on the history of barefoot running and how to start

The interview with Chris McDougall

1 comment:

  1. This is my first time to see this one and it so interesting. For all the blogs I read before, your article was the best and my favorite. I will try this one of my old running shoes and I'm sure when my friends see this, they will also like your idea. Thanks!

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