Jul 7, 2010

Barefoot Running: Part 1

By Chris Ecklund, MA, CSCS, USAW
written for The Independent (Santa Barbara)
Fads drive me insane…

Low Fat Diets
No Carb Diets
The 300 Workout
Juice Diets
The “Lose 12 pounds in 5 Days” Diet
Low rise jeans, baggy jeans, skinny jeans
Bent-billed hats, Flat-billed crooked hats
Mullets, Fohawks

The next infomercial…?

Now that I’ve probably offended all kinds of people out there, let’s move forward. Those that know me could have probably guessed it and are happy I’m admitting to it. I don’t know that there is anything I possess that would qualify as “trendy.” I just can’t do it. It kills me to buy stuff that I know will go out of style or be worthless in a year or less. My shorts aren’t too long, too short, too baggy, too tight… Call me cheap. Call me getting old. Whatever. It’s probably all true. I’ll accept all of the accusations.

I’ve been in the fitness and Strength & Conditioning industry long enough to see that fads and trends just keep making their way into mainstream thought. What’s more frustrating than that is the fact that most are just re-packaged trends from 10-30 years ago.

The latest? Barefoot running. Have you read about it? Or are you already doing it?

Recent pop literature hit the market and has initiated a tidal wave of change within the running community. Chris McDougal’s 2009 book entitled “Born to Run” (http://chrismcdougall.com/) as well as a review of literature and primary research from Dr. Daniel Lieberman (http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu) -- Harvard Professor of Evolutionary Biology—has flipped the running and shoe industry on its head…or foot, as it were. It’s not limited to the running culture, though. You’ll find that Strength and Conditioning professionals on all levels are implementing such practices as agility workout in bare feet (http://www.training-conditioning.com/2010/03/06/baring_their_soles/index.php).

So what’s all the uproar about? After sifting through the mounds of online, hard copy and research literature we can probably boil it down to two primary issues:

1. In ancient times, nobody ran in shoes. Or, if they did, they were extremely simply in construction. Throughout that time, humans were apparently able to do it with little to no injury. See the comparison of heel strike running with and without shoes below (less impact force with correct ball-of-foot ground strike).

2. Several people groups continue to run shoeless (Tarahumara Indian Tribe, Kenyans) and are showing minimal injuries associated with running as well high levels of performance and health.

Interesting, huh? Taking a quick look back at our recent history and you’ll find the modern running shoe was developed around the 1970’s. This is when the big “aerobics” kick spurred by Dr. Kenneth Cooper hit the American scene. Also of interest at that time (and ever since) has been the increase of injuries associated with running. Soles of shoes got thicker and thicker. Eventually we had plantar flexed shoes so we could “heel strike with less impact” and roll into the stride. A few years later we added the heel cups and supinated arch support to add “motion control” because too many people had pronated (flat) arches. Forty years later with exponential growth in technology and information, what do we see when we take another quick look at the shoe industry? Shoe companies designing shoes that marketed as being so minimal that it’s almost like running in bare feet (i.e. FiveFinger Vibram, Nike Free, etc.). Perfect. In 40 years we managed to come completely full circle and end up right back where we started.

Sound like I’m starting to buy in to the “fad” I despise? Bare with me (pun intended).

I watch people run, cut, jump, lift, lower, push, pull and stabilize everyday. The simple truth is this, we don’t move that well. I see it in adults. And, what’s more frightening is that I see it in kids. I have seen elementary aged kids that don’t even know how to skip anymore. Something is wrong there. Hear me on this: making the switch from shoes to shoeless is NOT going to fix this problem. It is not the cure. There’s no magic there. This is where the trendy running sole meets the road, so to speak. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in it for the right people in the right doses.

The research mentioned earlier, although inconclusive as of yet, is offering strong support that there may be value to this barefoot thing:

1. We have done it for much of history so why change now? Were we made for shoes or were shoes made for us (or neither)?

2. Good evidence that landing ground reaction forces differ between shod and barefoot athletes. Leiberman’s study shows increased ground impact in heel strike runners (heel contacts ground prior to ball of foot) and those in running shoes (who as a majority tend to heel strike).  (see figures to left showing shod and barefoot heel strike force--greater with barefoot but poor for both groups)

3. Heel striking during running increases both the braking (deceleration) force as well as breaking (literally adding to possible trauma of soft tissue and stress fractures of bones). Neither of these are beneficial.

4. Running in bare feet will most likely rapidly alter running mechanics toward efficiency. Why? Ever try running in bare feet and landing on your heel? It hurts! Generally the transition to a flat foot or ball of foot ground strike is a rapid adaptation that you’ll learn quickly or suffer the consequences.

5. Other research has shown landing and cutting ground reaction forces (http://www.training-conditioning.com/2010/03/06/baring_their_soles/index.php) are better in barefooted athletes. Why? It hurts more to land hard in bare feet so the body naturally decelerates more efficiently.

6. Cutting or changing directions in bare feet requires more muscular demand from the entire foot-ankle complex because there is no shoe to support or provide traction for it. Look back at basketball players in the 70’s and 80’s and notice how little support their shoes had. Anybody notice how ankle and ACL injuries have been on the rise ever since our shoes and playing surfaces got “better?” Makes sense, doesn’t it? Tape an ankle that isn’t injured to add support and what happens…the ankle gets weaker because the tape is doing the work.

So where does that leave us?

“Are you saying do it or don’t do it at this point?!” Neither.

When I recently posed this question to local chiropractor Dr. Neal Barry (who is an avid runner), the response similar. Citing a few current studies he mentioned that the literature is simply inconclusive at this point. There is support on both sides of the fence.

As for me, you’ll rarely hear me say “always yes” or “always no” to fitness or athletic performance questions. The truth (frustrating as it is) is that it depends on you. You can’t box and sell answers. What are your goals? What is your exercise/fitness, health, and training history? Do you have any foot limitations or biomechanical/structural issues? All of these and more must be considered by qualified experts.

I’ll leave you with this: let’s bring back some logic to our thinking. First, can we agree that popular literature (including this article) should not be treated as God or gold?! Because it’s in writing does not mean it’s truth. Second, progression. Going from zero to 60 in anything is unwise. We know it so live by it. If you’re going to go down this road, use slow gradual progress and ease in to it. And finally, if it hurts…stop!

Stay tuned for Part 2 when we’ll address more specific biomechanics of running, cutting and landing as well as why I think 75% of people in Santa Barbara who are “running to get in shape” should stop running.


AlexandraFunFit said...

Very well said. Isn't the answer to almost everything "It depends?" Did you read Len Kravitz's research analysis on this? I was writing an article that was supposed to be about "recommending the right workout shoe." So many of the biomechanical experts, chiros & podiatrists I interviewed were against most workout shoes that the article ended up being about "knowing your feet." So it seems the industry really is back to the 1970s & '80s. I have a lot of followers/subscribers who want to have good info on this topic so I shall refer them to your article. Great job!

Chris Ecklund, MA, CSCS said...


Many times, it does. I suppose that is the value we are supposed to bring to our clients. Hopefully we do. Of course, most are looking for the answer in a box...which rarely exist.

Thanks for the heads up on the Kravitz article. I did not see it. Was it in the last IDEA journal? I enjoy his reviews.