MustRead/ÀLire > The SportScientists – The barefoot running debate: Born to run, shoes & injury: the latest thinking

As usual, The Sportscientists just wrote a great article on the Barefoot debate.
You can read the entire article here. it’s long but everything is covered.
Making the switch – the practical problem

And herein lies the key – the shift to barefoot running is theoretically sound.  Lieberman and Davis have a compelling case.  But practically, it may be too big an adjustment for some to make. People have different abilities when it comes to learning a skill, and skill is what it will take to shift out of the shoes.  It also takes different mechanics, possibly muscle strength, and so out of 100 people, it is quite conceivable to me that you’ll get a range of responses.

Some will respond brilliantly, and will be able to run big distance barefoot and have no problem.  Some will really battle, and may have to return to beginner level, but they’ll learn it.  Eventually.  Whether they have the mindset or willpower and discipline to do it is another question.  Irene Davis presented her recommendation, which started with taking someone up to 30 minutes of barefoot walking, followed by progressive introduction of jogging.  She started at 1 min jog, 9 min walk for 30 minutes.  That eventually worked its way to 9 min jog, 1 min walk.  Which is all good and well, but if you’re running 40 to 80 miles per week, the idea of going that far back…not likely.

Then out of our 100 people, I do think there are some who just will not succeed barefoot.  Perhaps they have a structural problem somewhere, perhaps 20 to 40 years of shoes have caused changes that simply cannot be reversed.  Perhaps they have muscle weaknesses elsewhere, and barefoot running is not sufficient to overcome those.  One of the problems I have in this debate is that those who are advocating barefoot running are basically treating it as medicine (if you have a condition, take a drug.  If you have an injury, take barefoot running…).  The problem is that this is not done with any idea of dosage, « contra-indications » or exclusion criteria, and some might just not be able to do it, which makes ‘one-size fits all’ advice unhelpful.

The point is that there should never to a single approach to an injury problem.  I think there’s no doubt that someone who is chronically injured may have their best chance in trying barefoot running.  But this cannot come at the expense of a holistic view (and I must emphasize, Davis is not guilty of this), and so I’d put barefoot running forward as part of a solution, something to try, and if you are one who succeeds, then go with it.  But if not, then look elsewhere, and don’t worry, it’s not as simple as some are suggesting.

High performing runners – barefoot may just not be practical

The other group that I have to mention is high-performing runners.  Not necessarily only the elite, but even those who train for a fast marathon, or Ironman, or even high mileage 10km runners.  They are doing 120 to 200 km per week, and a lot of it is fast running.  Much faster than persistence hunting would have required – obviously, there is no data, but it’s unlikely that humans have ever tried to cover 200km in a week, a lot of it at 7 min/mile or faster, even getting down under 5 minutes/mile for long periods.

If you are doing this kind of distance, then there is a real question over barefoot running.  Some will argue that the reduction in loading rates and impact transients makes it more likely that you can succeed barefoot, especially at high mileage.  But there’s a confounder here too – muscle fatigue.  The third presentation in the symposium showed some really interesting evidence that the loading on the joints and bones was HIGHER as muscles fatigued.  This stands to reason, of course – muscle absorbs much of the impact force, and so tired muscle loses that ability, exposing the joints.

So those who are training for performance may struggle because of a muscle fatigue issue – the muscle is working differently, and harder in certain muscles, when barefoot, and that may be limiting.

The bottom line – individualized approach, but sound theory

On the whole, barefoot running, or at least minimalist shoes, is a sound concept. Lieberman’s theories regarding our ability to run are solid, and I do believe that the days of bulky, motion-control shoes are numbered. I think that barefoot running will be very difficult to implement, if not impossible, for some people and probably doesn’t work in the extremist view that some people are offering for it.

I believe that it may be PART of the solution for SOME of the cases of injury. For SOME, it may be ALL of the solution, the solve-all. For others, it will be completely ineffective, and for other still, it will be the cause of their problems.

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