Archive for January, 2010

Running Scared — Part 2

Continuing on from the previous entry, the other statement came from Roadrunner Sports. This was an email that went out to its customers, saying

I care about your health and well-being. That’s why when I hear headlines talking about the supposed benefits of “Barefoot Running” . . . I can’t stay quiet!

Don’t blindly follow the latest trend. This barefoot running thing is a major injury waiting to happen. Roads and trails are littered with pea size rocks just waiting to take a big bite our of your feet and leave you sidelined for weeks.

Ever walked on a beach or sidewalk and seen glass shards by the dozens? Don’t step on those if you plan on running in your future.

Look, there are some great shoes to help you run “Minimalist.” Just try the Nike Free or LunarGlide. But, barefoot? Yikes! Look out below!

This is ignorance masquerading as knowledge. I doubt the person who wrote it (“Chief Runner” Michael Gotfredson) has any experience even trying barefoot running. All he sees it as is a “latest trend” without examining it carefully (as the Brooks Running folks have started to do). Otherwise, he just wouldn’t have made some of the silly statements he made.

Pea-sized rocks take big bites out of your feet? Barefoot runners have never heard of such a thing. How the heck would such pebbles do such a thing, anyways. Yes, it is true, particularly for new barefoot runners, that gravel and the like can be a bit uncomfortable. But what they teach is to run more softly (and they thicken up the soles for next time).

And I don’t know where he goes to find glass shards by the dozens. Barefoot runners watch where they are going, and they rarely see such horrific dangers. Of course, if they did did see such a danger, there is a special technique they’ve developed to deal with it: They run around it. Even then, the dangers of glass are greatly exaggerated. As mentioned here before, skin does not puncture easily — it slices. As long as you are placing your foot down and not sliding, it is extremely difficult to injure it with glass.

The real-life experiences of barefoot runners contradict Roadrunner’s speculations.

When the data contradicts one’s speculations, the mark of reason is to discard the speculation.

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Well, not really. Despite all the media coverage about barefoot running lately, I doubt that more than just a small percentage of folks are really going to take it up. And many of them have been seduced by the idea that shoes like Vibram Five Fingers are “barefoot”. Pfft.

But recently, two shoe companies have spoken out about barefoot running, and neither one has really covered itself in glory. Today, we’ll discuss the first one.

The CEO of Brooks Running recently wrote an open letter about barefoot running. His point seems to be that the vast majority of people cannot run barefoot, and that only “mechanically blessed” individuals can do it safely. I’d like to focus on one of his statements:

At one end of the spectrum, we know there are runners who lack foot strength leading to severe pronation. They may strike heavily and need a great deal of support to run injury- and pain-free.

The Society for Barefoot Living contends that the reason most of these folks lack foot strength is because they wear shoes. Samuel Shulman’s study, “Survey in China and India of Feet That Have Never Worn Shoes” showed that the perennially barefoot just don’t have the sorts of problems that the shod worry about. Like any other part of the body, the foot strengthens with use and exercise. Of course, one does need to make sure not to overdo it at first.

Pronation just doesn’t seem to be much of a problem among the barefoot. That’s because their feet have not atrophied and because, when they are not held tightly within a shoe, the muscles, bones, and ligaments are free to move in a fashion that strengthens them and puts them to their proper use.

Regarding striking heavily, we just saw the results of the study of barefoot versus shod footstrikes. People wearing shoes strike heavily because they can. When they do that barefoot, they very quickly learn to run better in such a way to minimize those transient forces.

However, the Brooks Running letter is still pretty open-minded. It includes a link to some robust discussion within the company about barefoot running, and they ask for more opinions from their customers. They are willing to learn.

However, there is one statement in that discussion that reveals a certain (unsurprising) bias. They make the statement

Currently, there is no conclusive evidence demonstrating barefoot/minimalist running reduces injury or that running in running shoes causes injury in every runner.

Now, that statement could just as easily be written as

Currently, there is no conclusive evidence demonstrating running in running shoes reduces injury or that barefoot/minimalist running causes injury in every runner.

The sort of study being talked about just has not been done. There are some hints that barefoot running reduces stress on the joints, but there has not been a careful study comparing injury rates (and what sorts of injuries) of running barefoot versus running shod. However, neither of the above renderings of that statement is unbiased.

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There is a new paper out in Nature about barefoot running which examines foot strike patterns versus shod running. The article is Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners from lead investigator Daniel Lieberman of Harvard. There is also a “News and Views” article by William Jungers commenting on it: Biomechanics: Barefoot running strikes back. Already, the Los Angeles Times has an article about the story: Study on evolution of running finds going barefoot good for the sole, better for the heels.

What Dr. Lieberman and his co-researchers did was compare the foot strikes of five different groups: “(1) habitually shod athletes from the USA; (2) athletes from the Rift Valley Province of Kenya (famed for endurance running), most of whom grew up barefoot but now wear cushioned shoes when running; and (3) US runners who grew up shod but now habitually run barefoot or in minimal footwear. We also compared adolescents from two schools in the Rift Valley Province: one group (4) who have never worn shoes; and another group (5) who have been habitually shod most of their lives.”

Here’s what they found out. Almost everybody who runs in shoes strikes with the heel. Almost everybody who has experience with running barefoot does more front-foot striking or mid-foot striking (though, when looking at the data, the word “striking” really only appears to apply when rear-foot striking). When you strike with the heel, it sets up a strong transient force, with a very sharp increase in loading and a high peak. When barefoot, that transient force is mostly missing. You can see the difference in his figure 1 (a portion of which is included below):

If you try to heel-strike while barefoot, the transient is even quicker and higher, because there is not all that shoe cushioning. So, if you try to run barefoot that way, you very quickly learn that front-foot or mid-foot striking is the way to go. And that is also what Dr. Lieberman found. Folks who regularly run shod automatically heel-strike. In fact, the raised heel of running shoes actually encourage hitting with the heel first, since the ankle has to be flexed that much more to try to land on the mid or front of the foot. Folks with any amount of experience running barefoot automatically switch to a mid- or front-foot strike.

You can see that in action in the following two photos, from Jungers’ article. Both of the Kenyan youths pictured grew up barefooted, but started wearing shoes fairly recently. You can see the front-foot landing for the barefooted youth, and the heel-strike landing for the shod youth.

As Dr. Lieberman puts it in his article:

Differences between [rear-foot strike] and [front-foot strike] running make sense from an evolutionary perspective. If endurance running was an important behaviour before the invention of modern shoes, then natural selection is expected to have operated to lower the risk of injury and discomfort when barefoot or in minimal footwear. Most shod runners today land on their heels almost exclusively. In contrast, runners who cannot or prefer not to use cushioned shoes with elevated heels often avoid [rear-foot strike] landings and thus experience lower impact transients than do most shod runners today, even on very stiff surfaces.

“Very stiff surfaces” refers to surfaces such as asphalt and concrete:

As a result, we found no significant differences in rates or magnitudes of impact loading in barefoot runners on hard surfaces relative to cushioned surfaces.

Dr. Lieberman ends up by noting that

Evidence that barefoot and minimally shod runners avoid [rear-foot] strikes with high-impact collisions may have public health implications. The average runner strikes the ground 600 times per kilometre, making runners prone to repetitive stress injuries. The incidence of such injuries has remained considerable for 30 years despite technological advancements that providemore cushioning and motion control in shoes designed for heel–toe running. Although cushioned, high-heeled running shoes are comfortable, they limit proprioception and make it easier for runners to land on their heels. Furthermore, many running shoes have arch supports and stiffened soles that may lead to weaker foot muscles, reducing arch strength. This weakness contributes to excessive pronation and places greater demands on the plantar fascia, which may cause plantar fasciitis. Although there are anecdotal reports of reduced injuries in barefoot populations, controlled prospective studies are needed to test the hypothesis that individuals who do not predominantly RFS either barefoot or in minimal footwear, as the foot apparently evolved to do, have reduced injury rates.

While there are still no decent studies that compare injury rates between shod and barefoot runners, every study like the one above should certainly make the public (and officials) more amenable to recognizing barefoot running.

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Resisting Social Pressure

One of the troubles many barefooters have is the reaction of society. There are all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways that people let us know that we are not living up to expectations. Also, as social beings, it is built into our genes (to some extent) to respond to that pressure. That pressure is important to all of us getting along. It is part of being social animals. In some sense, it helps develop and maintain our sense of what is right and wrong.

However, that social pressure works indiscriminately, hitting the useful as well as the mere conventional. We are all aware of teens obsessing about the latest fad of the day. And we are aware that those who resist it are labeled “nerds” or “Goths”, or whatever, and put under intense pressure to be just like everybody else. Yet, it is so often the unconventional that leads to everyday progress.

Barefooting is actually a way to resist some of that unreasonable social pressure. It’s a good way to train ourselves to analytically look at what we do and why, and to help ensure that there are actually good reasons for our behaviors.

This is not a new concept. Back in Roman times, Cato the Younger was well known for going barefoot along the streets of Rome. Here is how it was put by Plutarch in his “Lives”:

Καθόλου δὲ τοῖς βίοις καὶ τοῖς ἐπιτηδεύμασιν ὁ Κάτων τὴν ἐναντίαν ὁδὸν οἰόμενος δεῖν βαδίζειν ὡς οὖσι φαύλοις καὶ μεγάλης δεομένοις μεταβολῆς, ἐπεὶ πορφύραν ἑώρα τὴν κατακόρως ἐρυθρὰν καὶ ὀξεῖαν ἀγαπωμένην, αὐτὸς ἐφόρει τὴν μέλαιναν. πολλάκις δ’ ἀνυπόδητος καὶ ἀχίτων εἰς τὸ δημόσιον προῄει μετ’ ἄριστον, οὐ δόξαν ἐκ ταύτης τῆς καινότητος θηρώμενος, ἀλλὰ ἐθίζων ἑαυτὸν ἐπὶ τοῖς αἰσχροῖς αἰσχύνεσθαι μόνοις, τῶν δὲ ἄλλων ἀδόξων καταφρονεῖν.


Being dissatisfied with them, Cato would deliberately go against the grain of the attitudes of his times. For instance, when a particularly bright hue of purple became all the rage, he would instead wear the darkest shade possible. Also, he would often go out about the streets barefoot and without his tunic. He was not looking for notoriety by doing so, but was teaching himself to be ashamed of only that which is truly shameful, and to ignore popular opinion otherwise.

So, if you would like to go barefoot more, but are really concerned about what others might think, you can take some advice from Cato.

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A Rant We Can Believe In

Barefoot Ken Bob is An Angry Barefooter. Oh, he’s not really angry, but he has some really good observations:

This is simple logic…

IF your foot is covered and If you believe you are barefoot – Then, you have been made a fool!

Even a bigger fool, if you paid money for the footwear believing they actually are “barefoot” shoes!

IF you sell me footwear, and IF you have convinced me to believe that I’m barefoot while wearing the footwear- Then you have made me a fool!

I’m not saying anyone or everyone needs to be barefoot all the time (heaven forbid, that that should happen, or that peace breaks out around the world). I’m just saying, Don’t be made a fool, and don’t try to make me a fool!”

When I talk about Running Barefoot, or Barefoot Running, or Walking Barefoot, or Barefoot Walking, or being Barefoot – I actually, truly, mean that the feet are bare, without shoes, footwear, not even socks. I try to be clear and accurate about this. And a few years ago, people actually understood clearly and accurately that I meant “barefoot”.

Go read the rest of it here.

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So, What’s the Point?

In the comments, “Beach Bum” points us to an article from 1984 in the Eugene, OR Register-Guard, in which Cape May, NJ was starting to crack down on their ordinance requiring shoes on their Boardwalk after 7 p.m.

That article is in the August 16, 1984 Eugene Register-Guard (Oregon), “Baring feet against the law in this town”.

Google’s “Related articles” link provides a slightly longer version of the story from the Palm Beach Post (Florida), “Barefoot in the Dark”. Here’s what the Palm Beach article says:

CAPE MAY, N.J. (AP) — If you thought Palm Beach made things tough by forbidding joggers from running topless through town, just listen to this.

In Cape May, a Victorian relic by the sea, few people would ever think of walking or jogging while wearing shoes. Bottomless, at least where feet are concerned, is the only way to go. But now those feet had better be clad in “proper footwear” after 7 p.m. on the boardwalk and promenade.

It’s the law, and enforcement is being stepped up.

“That’s what summer is for, walking barefoot,” protested 13-year-old Tara Sherretta of Cape May as she and two friends walked along the promenade without shoes.

Older residents and merchants selling sandals seem to be taking the issue in stride. But most of them agree with youngsters that the 13-year-old ordinance runs counter to the resort spirit.

“The kids are scared to death they’re going to get locked up or something,” said gift shop cashier Hannah Lemmon, pointing to empty bins that once contained sandals.

The concern in this town of charming homes, inns and ubiquitous wicker furniture stems from a $125 fine that Municipal Judge Martin Way handed out last week for the first summons issued under the city’s barefoot law.

Police Chief Harry Stotz said he instructed his 24 officers to strictly enforce the law this summer.

He said the increased enforcement is not a result of lingering Victorian prudishness, but rather the fear of lawsuits against the city if someone strolling in the dark was injured by a piece of glass, burning cigarette or a splinter from the boardwalk.

At dusk Tuesday, a barefoot Caroline Agnelli, 17, of East Hartford, Conn., ducked behind a passer-by so two police officers making their rounds couldn’t see she was barefoot.

“You can go into any place here barefoot. But you can’t walk on the boardwalk. That’s really weird, especially at a beach town,” said Miss Agnelli as she strolled the promenade, a 12-foot-wide strip of asphalt parallel to the beach. The boardwalk is two wooden structures that just like piers off the promenade and toward the water.

A hearing on the only other summons ever issued for such a violation was postponed yesterday for one week after the defendant said he could not make the court date.

The law says people on public streets and in public places after 7 p.m. must wear “usual dress” rather than bathing suits. It adds: “With reference to the boardwalk and promenade, usual dress includes proper footwear.”

One interesting part of the story is the reference to the Palm Beach ordinance making it illegal to be in town without wearing a shirt. This ordinance was finally declared unconstitutional, in 1987, in DeWeese v. Palm Beach.

Another interesting part is the excuse that the Police Chief uses. As usual, it’s just a mass of ignorance and contradictions. In New Jersey in the summertime, the sun doesn’t set until 8:30 p.m., so the reference to the dark “after 7 p.m.” makes is horribly over-inclusive. But the reference to “proper footwear” makes it quite clear: it is merely a dress code. Besides, I’ve never seen a city being sued by a barefoot person because they stepped on a cigarette butt in the dark. That’s just excuse-making.

In fact, here is the whole ordinance, found at the website of the City of Cape May:

§373-31. Bathing suits prohibited during certain hours.

No person, either male or female, shall be attired in a bathing suit, trunks or other than usual dress on any public street or in any public place, after 7:00 p.m. and prior to 7:00 a.m. With reference to the boardwalk or promenade, usual dress includes appropriate footwear.

Again, it is clear that it is only a dress code, imposed by an arm of the state, against its citizens. I doubt it would hold up in court, but it appears that nobody has challenged it.

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Grand Rapids News Story

Here’s a cute story done by a Grand Rapids, MI, local news station. It’s about barefoot running and some barefoot running clinics put on by Jason Robillard.

It does seem a bit odd that one would require clinics on how to run barefoot (take off your shoes!), but there is more to it than that. Don’t forget that feet that are used to being encased in shoes do not have the muscle, tendon, or ligament support or strength of those who regularly go barefoot. There can also be issues of technique. If you try to use the same sort of heel-striking that you can get away with shod you won’t last very long.

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