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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Barefoot running - the safe neutral ground

Barefoot running:  Finding the neutral view in a lively discussion

Thanks to everyone for the lively discussion on the previous post on the recent observation (not scientific study!) on a rise in the number of injuries associated with barefoot running.  It certainly stimulated much more debate than I could keep up with, especially while traveling back from the UK.

I know we've received many, many comments in response, and many readers don't read those comments (though if you have some time, there are some good views), so I felt I'd try to wrap up the barefoot post with a final word of my own (I am 100% sure that this topic will come up again in the future, so don't worry)

A debate where the prudent approach is the only one...for now

It strikes me that of the many issues in sports science, this is the one where taking the neutral, fence-sitting position is really the only option until proven otherwise.

Those who follow the site will know that I'm not usually a "fence-sitter" and I don't need much encouragement to throw out the clear and unambiguous opinions - for example, Caster Semenya shouldn't run against women, Oscar Pistorius has an advantage, dehydration doesn't cause cramp, South African sports administrators are mostly corrupt or incompetent.

But on this one, I just don't can't commit to such an extreme view, either way.  And reading through all the debate in the last few days does little to convince me otherwise.  We've heard many testimonies about people who have switched to barefoot or minimalist shoes with great success.  Well done, and good for you!  If it has solved your injury problems, or opened up a world of running to YOU, then long may it continue!

But occasionally, we hear from someone who tried and failed and wishes they'd never discovered barefoot running.  I maintain that this latter group is in the minority - most people who try it out, fail, and get injured, will go back to shoes and keep running, sometimes injured, sometimes well.  These people, I suspect, don't often share their views, and certainly not as passionately as those who have succeeded, in large part because the blame for "failure" is often placed at the feet (yes, I know, sorry) of the person who has just failed!  Seriously, who wants to own up to failing at the transition when dozens will simply say "You didn't do it right"?  Not as many as will share success stories, that's for sure.

And yes, I hear you on the possibility that these "failed" conversions have erred in their training.  It is a very valid point, one which I think may be true in many of the cases.  But not all.  At least, not until you can prove it to me!   And herein lies the crux.

Testimonies that should be heeded

The point is that guys like Matt have tried barefoot running.  They're not simply dismissing it out of hand.  And I know Matt, and respect him highly, and he's a guy who is really open to innovation.  When we wrote our book together, we actually argued on certain areas where I was being more "conservative" than he was with regards to training techniques!  He is someone who will not approach the issue in a closed-minded manner, as his books have demonstrated.  He has shown a willingness to learn, to dismiss "dogma" and to challenge beliefs, and those who are being very critical of his views (and ours) should bear this in mind.

So his views, while more extreme than my own on this topic, should be heard, because if you're a barefoot supporter, and someone has tried everything, right from running 1 MINUTE a day barefoot to train gradually, and still failed (and they're also in the top 5% of runners, I might add, not 120kg back-of-the-pack 6 hour marathon runners), then we all need to take heed.

Failure to do so is not only reckless to all those who are hanging on this barefoot movement as the solution, it's presumptuous to those who have tried and failed.

My thought is that if someone is injured, then it's likely their training is at fault, regardless of what they have on their feet.  There are some for whom a switch to barefoot will change training and mechanics (especially the knees, as we've had pointed out, thank you to those who've brought it up).  There are others for whom it will initiate a lifelong series of problems, potentially putting an end to running as they know it.

And that alone makes me cautious.  I'd be very hesitant to commit one way or the other.  And so personal testimonies are very welcome, but to apply a testimony of one (or even a group) to many, that leaves a lot of room for catastrophe!

Thanks again for all the comments, great discussion!

Forthcoming attraction - the FIFA 2010 Football World Cup in SA, and the Science of Football

So I mentioned earlier that I've just arrived back from the UK, in what was ultimately a disappointing end to the Sevens Season.  If I had a blog devoted to the sport of rugby, and if I had a following mostly in South Africa, I would fill a month of reading with the reasons and the issues facing the sport.  But alas, I don't.

I do however know that the biggest single sports event in the world is now imminent here in South Africa.  From arrival at the airport, all the way to my home, the signs for the FIFA 2010 World Cup are everywhere.  The news has been dominated by the build-up, and it promises to be a magical four weeks.

And there will be no better opportunity than this to look at the Science of Football in the coming weeks.  The physiology, performance analysis, altitude, aerodynamics, crowd support and penalty shoot-out dilemmas faced by teams should make for some great discussion.

So look out for that!

Thanks once again!



Tucker Goodrich said...

It would be great if you could encourage Mr. Fitzgerald to write about why he failed, and how.

I found his article very uncompelling, but his personal account would be of great interest to me, and, I'm sure, many others.

As you point out, we don't often hear the story of the guys who failed in taking up barefoot-style running, mostly the folks who've succeeded.

Since studies are lacking, we have need of all the anecdotes we can get our hands on. ;)

Anonymous said...

Are there other groups as cultish as the running community and fall easily into the trap of extrapolating from their personal experiences?

I run, therefore you should run too. I run barefoot, therefore you should too. As you conclude, not everybody is meant to run, and not everybody is meant to run barefoot. Shouldn't this be rather obvious?

Consider these points:

1. Shoe companies have little incentive to make "injury free" shoes since the large and overwhelming majority of running shoe buyers never run in them.

2. The studies of running techniques involve statistically insignificant numbers. For example, the Pose study looked at 20 runners. Maybe it's difficult to find runners (and funding--see #1 above) for studies but I wouldn't buy a certain dog food based on a study of 20 dogs.

3. My sense is that improper training techniques and/or physical imperfections--not footwear or lack of same--cause most running injuries.

Thanks for the series and the common sense. Mike

Unknown said...

My thought is that if someone is injured, then it's likely their training is at fault, regardless of what they have on their feet.

I think you're going too far with that statement and it's kinda of ridiculous actually.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Folks

Thanks for the comments. Tuck, you're exactly right. I'd love to find out more about Matt's experiences - I'm going to email him and find out if he's done a piece, or if he'd like to.

THen to Anonymous:

Well put. I can only agree with it.

And to Richard:

Why, exactly? You've said you don't agree, but I'm not sure why you feel it's "too far". Do you disagree that training errors are not the main cause? What is the basis? I'm really interested, because at the moment, all you've done is voice a disagreement, which in this kind of debate, is only 10% of the 'answer', so please do elaborate. For example, if you feel that training is not responsible, but you still advocate that barefoot running is good provided you train right, then you're contradicting yourself to some extent. I'd like to know your position.


aluchko said...

"1. Shoe companies have little incentive to make "injury free" shoes since the large and overwhelming majority of running shoe buyers never run in them."

I'm not sure if you're being serious here but I can't understand this statement.

Shoe companies have a huge incentive to make shoes that reduce injuries. Injured runners run less, and switch shoes. Healthy runners run more, wear out shoes, then buy another pair of the same shoes.

You could argue they have an incentive to promote shoes based on cushioning, since cushioning wears out leading to more shoe purchases. But I'm not sure I buy this scenario (though it could lead them to use a softer cushion that wears out quicker).

Gretchen said...

Ross - Thanks so much for all of your articles, thoughts and information on the topic of barefoot running. I really enjoyed your original series and all of your subsequent posts on this topic. You've been a resource that has really helped me develop my own opinions on this topic. I actually appreciate your "fence-sitting," as you call it. I value your opinions because you seem to look at it all in such a balanced way, and evaluate the evidence on both sides of the debate, not the anecdotes.

Oliver said...

@Aluchko , well put.Sometimes all that is necessary is a bit of common sense
From my observations and speaking to people who run barefoot, to people posting of their 'sucess' on forums, it 'appears'to me that the cohort is largely made up of runners more to the MOP and BOP. Nothing wrong with that. However, in terms of the success of any difference in trining etc, the things that interest me is both injury rates and the improvement in performance, injury rates at different levels of training, at different levels of performance etc.
If the barefoot runners are equally distributed at all levels, and better still if they have shown improvement especially at the pointy end, then there would be a greater following.
Most things develop from necessity or competition (which is necessity itself), and the day that barefoot runners are frequenting sub 2:20 marathons, or breaking WR's, the shoe companies would get worried.

Until then it will remain a fad

@ Anonymous , you asked if the group is cultish? Don't know, but wht I do know after 33 yrs of marathoning, especially recently in the quick information age, people are quick to latch on to 'easy fixes'.
Get cramps? Take some salt
Fatigued? Wear compression socks.
Injured? Change shoes/go barefeet
etc etc
Easy to blame it on something that 'may be missing' and like headche tablet, just 'fix' it.
Its harder to admit that the training may be wrong, or that you are just not training enough, because to implement it actually requires more of you and not the 'tablet'

oliver said...

...and to Ross.

Don't follow rugby 7's (as you know), don't know anyone that does.

But based on the just finished S14, exciting games, S/F spots contested by 7 teams in last round, etc, the rugby prospects look pretty good.

Especially in SA.

btw...I will be in SA for last stages of WC (in Cape Town), hoping to pop in to SSISA again if I can arrange anothyer visit, and will look you up if that's ok


kristin said...

This is a great discussion topic! I tried barefoot running on the beach a few times but it just didn't feel right. My knees and feet really hurt afterwards. I wish it "worked" for me because the sandy beach offers great resistance and toning.

Farid said...

@ kristin,
careful to use sand running as your metric for any running evidence. The dynamics of every step are literally ever-changing and any two footfalls will surely be different. This is apart from what consistency of sand you're running on. This makes me think of Reebok's Easytone shoe...
Coming from a gait lab, I was incensed at the way Reebok was marketing it and this was made worse by all the ANECDOTES toting how remarkable they were.
I was wondering if you guys could do a piece on those shoes?

@ Richard
at the risk of turning this blog into a shootout of words, I respectfully reject your comment. I don't have the burden of being the host here, so I'd like to say that there shouldn't be a place for stuff like that. If you're going to disagree, fine. But support your point of view with evidence and/or an argument. The substantial number of people who successfully switch between shod and unshod and the equally substantial group that fail in either direction should be proof that both strategies are successful. The next logical step would be to scrutinize training and the assumed HUGE number of people who don't get proper training. I'd argue that top runners probably have little incentive to switch because they're top runners! The demographic with the highest flux between shod and unshod (again, in either direction) therefore provides the greatest proportion of anecdotes. Quite obviously, this group is less likely to have good training and more likely to transition wrongly.
As Ross pointed out, prospective studies are essential to control for technique, skill, any measure of athleticism, and even anthropometrics.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Farid

Thank you for your input on this post and the previous one. You've saved me a good deal of time in having to respond, because I couldn't have put it better myself! So thanks!

Re the Reebok, I must confess that I've not seen them. They haven't reached South Africa yet, maybe they never will. I'll look them up and maybe some time in the future, they'll make a good post!

Thanks again for your informed input!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

To Oliver:

Yes, rugby seems very healthy in SA at the moment. However, at the risk of being a cynic, it's at times like these that the sports authorities are most likely to err in their planning for the future, and so now is the time to work hardest at getting the right systems in place to capitalize.

We certainly are in the middle of a glorious spell in SA Rugby. Sure, the Sevens season was poor, but that's a function of how the team has to be selected, and a few injuries, but mostly the strategic position of Sevens within SA Rugby.

For the rest - national team, Super 14, we've never had the depth and quality of players we do now. I would guess that five or six of the current best 15 are among the best players EVER to represent SA, all in one team, so indeed, a golden period for the sport.

The million dollar question is what this means for the future? And as England showed after their own golden period of 2003, if you're not careful, the floor can fall out quickly!

The 2011 Rugby World Cup will be very interesting, because SA will be right at the limit of extending the form of its current players, while other teams are on the upward curve. That may be the swansong. Time will tell!

And if you're in Cape Town, definitely, it'll be a pleasure!


Richard Ayotte said...

My thought is that if someone is injured, then it's likely their training is at fault, regardless of what they have on their feet.

I think you're going too far with that statement and it's kinda of ridiculous actually.