Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Article: A Few Words on Barefoot / Minimalist Running

Barefoot RunnerGenerally, I tend to be very suspicious of hot new trends and bandwagons. In fact, I've been known to go out of my way to avoid doing / reading / seeing / trying / etc. things that seem to be taking the world by storm. It's not that I'm contrary by nature; I've just born witness to the stupidity of the masses a lot more often that I have their wisdom.

So it was with barefoot / minimalist running. I grew up running in thick-soled traditional shoes and spent most of my high school distance career striking midfoot; although I did see the light of forefoot striking partway through college, I never thought all that hard about my shoes, and it wasn't until maybe five years ago or so that I first raised my eyebrows at a pair of Vibram FiveFingers the way you might at a large, exotic-looking insect.

Since then, I've done my share of reading on the subject, and shockingly (read: not even remotely shockingly), this seems to be one of those issues that some people tend to get all fight-ey and fundamentalist about. I've lost track of the number of articles I've read evangelizing about how barefoot / minimalist running is the be-all, end-all of the sport and promise it will magically cure whatever leg or foot maladies plague you, or, on the other hand, about how Vibrams are a tool of the devil and it's incredibly dangerous for Westerners accustomed to running in high-tech, mushy traditional shoes to switch to something so hippy dippy and preposterous.

Just as I am suspicious of sensations, I also maintain a healthy skepticism about particularly extreme positions on most subjects. And shockingly (read: not even remotely shockingly), the minimalist running articles that I've found the most compelling and persuasive have been the ones that discuss the pros and cons of both styles, the fringe cases, the "yes- and no-but" cases, and the ones that don't begin with the tacit assumptions that all runners are alike and there is such a thing as the one "best" way of doing anything related to running.

This article from The Science of Sport is such a one. It's not a terribly long read, and I definitely recommend it, but here are a few of the high points that I think don't get nearly enough air time in the ongoing debate about running shoes & foot strike:

  • There are many, many people who run in both types of shoe (minimalist & traditional) and with different foot strikes (heel, midfoot, forefoot) who are healthy, safe, and injury-free and have been for many years.
  • Some people switch to barefoot/minimalist and suffer injuries; others make the switch and find that injuries that have bothered them for years disappear.
  • Although forefoot striking causes less loading on joints and is usually associated with more efficient patterns of movement when all other things are equal, our bodies become efficient at whatever we do with them most often, so someone who has been a heel striker for thirty years may find that forefoot striking is actually less efficient for them, at least at first (and sometimes indefinitely).
  • Heel/midfoot striking and forefoot striking use vastly different muscles (more anterior for heel/midfoot, more posterior for forefoot), and runners who attempt to switch from one to the other may have dramatic strength imbalances that can result in injuries or over-training if they don't start out very, very gradually.
  • Whether or not switching to minimalist shoes or forefoot striking makes sense for a given runner is a very individualistic question and depends on a number of factors including running goals, mileage, and history of injury.

For my part, I can honestly say there is no way I could possibly force myself to land on my heels when I run regardless of what shoes I was wearing, because it requires landing with my foot out in front of my body, which puts a ton of uncomfy force on my knees and hips. (I do catch myself doing it a little when I have to slow down quickly, which illustrates the idea that heel striking does create a braking action; this is part of the reason why heel striking is often not a super-efficient way of transforming energy into forward motion.) When I first switched from midfoot striking to forefoot striking, it was definitely a very long and gradual process that involved cutting my mileage back significantly and then building it up again over the course of several months as my calves, hamstrings, and glute meds became strong enough to keep up with my cardiovascular system. I definitely remember overdoing it on a few occasions and then having to deal with mild Achilles tendon or calf strains as a result, but over time that stopped, and eventually I found that the constant shin splints that had plagued me for as long as I could remember pretty much disappeared.

I've never attempted to go "full Vibram," but a few months ago I did get a pair of racing flats, just because I was curious about how much difference a lighter shoe might make in shorter races. They have a significantly smaller heel-toe drop than my more traditional Asics and also a lot less cushioning. Because I've been running on my forefeet for years, I haven't had a lot of the issues that midfoot & heel strikers can have when several centimeters of extra heel is suddenly gone and the calf and heel cord are forced to suddenly do a bunch of extra work. Still, I've learned not to try to run in them for more than about 10K at the very outside unless I'm running at race pace; it turns out that at slower speeds, especially as I get tired, I find my heels tapping the ground a little more often, and that gets uncomfortable. (The lack of cushioning can also get uncomfortable, but that's a whole other issue.) So I'd give the same advice to people transitioning to racing flats as I would to people considering barefoot / minimalist running -- start slowly, increase mileage gradually, and listen to your body, erring on the side of taking an extra rest day now and then rather than on the side of ending up injured.

So yeah. To me this is absolutely one of those issues where the answer to the question "Which is better?" is "It depends," and I always applaud folks who don't pretend a rich and complex issue is cut-and-dry. Run on, Science of Sport! :)

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