Over a year ago I wrote a two-post diatribe about the trend toward minimalist shoes and barefoot running. Seeing one of my former athletes wearing a pair of Vibram Five Fingers at the mid-week beach run got me once again to thinking. I didn't want to sit and read through a bunch of news articles...again...on the topic, so I did a little iTunes Store search. By my good fortune there was a humanist podcast on the minimalist shoe and barefoot running trend, featuring Harvard University evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, Liberty University professor (and author) Daniel Howell, and author Christopher McDougall spoke on the benefits of going barefoot.
Why would humanists would take an interest in something which seems more in the realm of biomechanics and sport? Humanists (at least the secular humanists) believe that reason, ethics and justice, rather than the supernatural, dogma or religious belief, are the underpinnings of morality and decision-making. And some of these humanists like the idea of getting in contact with the earth around them; I'm not certain whether they would be called "tree-huggers"in the perjorative sense...the humanists who have taken to move back to their earlier and "more natural" state, one before the advent of constrictive and (according to Howell) biomechanically harmful shoes.
(I'm only a curious running coach. I come neither to laud nor condemn, but to try, to the best of my ability, to give a balanced point...and my recommendation/s. I ran college cross country in Nike cross country flats and raced 5K and 10K races in a pair of lightweight Brooks or New Balance road racing flats. When I'm healthy and running well I enjoy racing short distance races in light shoes. I do track workouts in light-to-medium-weight trainers, and road runs in a cushioned shoe for neutral runners.)
Lieberman compared the foot strike patterns of shod and barefoot runners. He did not take a shod runner and put them into a minimalist shoe or compel them to run barefoot for research purposes. So, right off the bat we have to compare apples and oranges. Or do we?
He repeated, almost verbatim, the "Nature" abstract: Habitually barefoot endurance runners often land on the forefoot before bringing down the heel; they sometimes land flat footed or, less often, on the heel. In contrast, habitually shod runners mostly rear-foot strike, facilitated by the elevated and cushioned heel of the modern running shoe. Even on hard surfaces, barefoot runners who forefoot strike generate smaller collision forces than shod rearfoot strikers. This difference results primarily from a more plantar-flexed foot at landing & more ankle compliance during impact, decreasing the effective mass of the body that collides with the ground. Forefoot & midfoot strike gaits were probably more common when humans ran barefoot or in minimal shoes, & may protect the feet & lower limbs from some of the impact-related injuries now experienced by a high percentage of runners.
I still think it's safe to assume there are more "slow" than "fast" runners (pardon the pun) hitting the roads. Slower runners have a different running gait. They tend to overstride; their feet stay on the running surface for a longer period of time and they use more of the large leg muscles. As the speed of the run increases, the runner either pounds the heels into the ground because they're overstriding (the result of anaerobic, sprint-focused sports), which causes shock-related stress and the injuries which result, or they adapt; shortening the stride and strike closer to midfoot or forefoot.
Another portion of the podcast had the interviewer learning how to run barefoot from Christopher McDougall, author of "Born To Run." One of the questions from the interviewer, while he and McDougall were trotting down a path (Central Park, I believe) was: "So, what happens when there are rocks on the pathway?" To which McDougall replied, "I have a little bit of technology I use then...it's called vision."
I can't help but agree that barefoot running might work for many people, especially if the terrain is amenable to wearing no shoes or Vibrams, or minimalist shoes. But the trouble comes when you can't see what's going on below you.
This past weekend is a perfect example: My friend Jon began running in Vibram Five Fingers at about the same time I first wrote about barefoot running. Jon's one of those guys who doesn't believe in slow, gradual transitions into anything. Right away, he took the Vibrams out for a 5K run...and paid the price in sore tendons. However, over the course of time he's increased the duration and distance at which he can run in them; he's now up to 15 kilometers, having raced the Pensacola Double Bridge Run in them.
We were out the other day at a local Hash House Harriers event. After the first mile, which was on grass and pavement, the trail turned into the shallows of Pensacola Bay. Yes, I said "into" the bay; one water crossing per trail seems to be par for the course for this kennel. Fortunately for us the conditions were warm and the water, while cool, was not a hindrance.
Jon, wearing his Vibrams on trail, decided to take them off. He decided to take the risk of going barefoot through the shallows rather than soak his shoes the day before he planned to use them in a half-marathon on the beach. His first step into the water was his undoing. I heard those fateful words which you never want to hear: "that's not good."
Looking back, Jon raised his foot up out of the water. The ball of his foot, around the big toe, appeared more as a flap of skin. Step number one into the shallow water was directly onto an oyster shell, which apparently slashed his foot nearly to the bone. One of the tail-end runners on the trail quickly went back for Jon's jeep and took him to the hospital. Naturally it was safe to say he could kiss his planned half-marathon for the next day good-bye.
Perhaps a couple lessons can be learned from Jon's mishap:
One, there's a reverse correlation between the equipment a runner uses and the degree of situational awareness which is necessary. If you can't see what you're stepping on, it's probably a good idea to put something between your tender flesh and the many potential things which are more resilient than, and can do serious harm, to your tender flesh.
Two, the day immediately before a big race is probably the most dangerous. The best advice for individual runners is to think about the constellation of things which can possibly go wrong, and try to avoid them as much as possible. Just because you have pre-race paranoia doesn't mean everything isn't out to get you.