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.