Monday, June 6, 2011

The barefoot running debate: Born to run, shoes & injury: the latest thinking

The barefoot running debate: Born to run, shoes & injury: the latest thinking

One of the more interesting, and certainly topical presentations at the recent meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Denver was a symposium on barefoot running. It was led by Irene Davis and Daniel Lieberman, both advocates for barefoot running and top scientists in this field. Lieberman in particular is something of a 'legend' in the field, and two years ago, he gave the prestigious keynote address at the ACSM meeting.

Since then, the area has moved on, thankfully. Most recently, Lieberman's group did some fascinating work on the barefoot running concept in runners accustomed to shoes or running barefoot, and that's the focus of this post, along with some thoughts on the concepts underlying barefoot running. A lot of the time, I'll play devil's advocate, because I believe in Lieberman's findings, and the theory behind barefoot running is sound. But there are some "loopholes", and I'll end with those.

Not just a fad, and certainly not only for the niche

There are more than a few people who have dismissed barefoot running as a fad. And many will have labeled it a niche concept, practiced by a very small percentage of runners. That's only partly true. If you think that barefoot running has nothing to do with you, think again. You may not have discarded your shoes, but the truth is the the shoes you are running in have already been influenced by the concepts that drive the barefoot running movement.

That is, the last decade, which has seen more and more evidence come out AGAINST shoes, has also seen a shift in the shoe industry. Gone are the heavy, bulky motion-control shoes, replaced by shoes that are now marketed to simulate barefoot running. Nike were apparently the first to do this, though I remember Adidas bringing out "feet you wear" in the 1990s. But it was the Nike Free that was the first "barefoot shoe", and Irene Davis, in her ACSM presentation, told the story that a famous college coach in the USA was responsible for this because he told a Nike rep who had come to watch his team train that his runners were more comfortable being barefoot.

The rep rushed back to HQ, reported on the athlete's preference, and it heralded the shift. Now, almost all the companies are focusing on the 'minimalist concept' of shoes. There are even new companies (Vibram, Newton). Of course, there are a few stubborn survivors, but the whole market has shifted, there is no doubt about it. Why? Because of the current thinking around running, and the role of footstrike, and our feet, in injury risk during running. So we're all affected, even if we run in shoes, and here's the theory.