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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Bare Foot Running, (now the buzzword is BFR) & the latest war


I have been running since 1968 in some form or another & after almost 30 years of coaching runners of all guises, from the gazelles who grew up running barefoot everyday & winning gold medals in the marathon in shoes, to regular folk who’d get injured if they fetched the mail barefoot.
Come on, isn’t every war (that hurts us all) & failed bills through Congress that would benefit millions, always because we have some lunatic fringe refusing to live & let live & has to force their paradigm, no matter how poorly supported or justified, down our throats to the detriment of all including themselves?
Those of you observing this titanic struggle between those that swear if we do not run with the feet we were born with in all their naked glory, frostbite, stress fractures, cessation & all, we will definitely destroy the planet & all upon it & have a miserable time in general while we run & those who fear that their livelihood is in danger because they’ll never sell another running shoe (or device that allows pleasurable perambulation to millions ) again, take heart—between black & white are a myriad shades of grey & every other color of the rainbow.

Those than can run barefoot do & should, those that clearly should not, should not…

If we all grew up rurally in regions where there was no concrete or asphalt, or broken glass & shards of various metals lying about, then maybe…
AND
If we all started life using running as a primary mode of transport (together with walking) for EVERYTHING we did & EVERYWHERE we needed to get to, then maybe
AND
If we all lived in climates where footwear was never a prerequisite demand of our environment, then maybe
AND
If we all grew up never having the posterior side of our legs shortened by footwear with heels, then maybe
AND
If we all weigh under 110 pounds if we are female & 130 pounds if we are male, then maybe
AND
If we all had the time, the structural integrity, the youth, the willingness, the mechanics, the soft tissue, the environment, the guidance, the patience, the support & the understanding, then maybe:


WE WOULD ALL BE ABLE TO RUN BLISSFULLY BAREFOOT INTO THE SUNSET WITHOUT A CARE IN THE WORLD, SMUG IN OUR DESTRUCTION OF THE MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR BEHEMOTH THAT IS THE RUNNING SHOE INDUSTRY

BUT ONLY IF


Now barefoot running has been around since the dawn of man & man is the only creature that manipulates his environment to such an extent that it requires of him to continually adapt to survive & function within that environment. So those that claim to be the father’s of this movement are just as full of it as Christopher McDougal (yes he who wrote the really wonderful treatise, Born to Run) when it comes to claiming ownership of the “art”. McDougal has done a great job of bringing it to international prominence & can possibly claim blame or infamy for it being such a hot topic or as a young New Jersey friend recently called it – a hot mess.
Born to Run was 1st published in May 2009 – on September 24th 2009 McDougal published a fantastic article in Men’s Health magazine called Everything you know about muscle is wrong, (again the combative in-your-face type title that seems to be his hallmark). This is all about connective tissue being the answer to all athletic health, power & performance – maybe so, & those of us in the industry have long been working in this field as well as with the other components of performance, but this a story for another day. Suffice to say that Christopher, after months of gradual conditioning with an ultra marathon coach & his heroic voyage in the mountains of the Copper Canyons, with the whimsical Arnulfo & his magical people waxed euphoric that by running with his minimalist Indian sandals he no longer suffers from any of the niggles & injuries that us mortal men do, like our most recent winner of the New York Marathon (& an Olympic marathon silver medalist) suffer. Now here, in this article, he speaks of his elusive (“piercing”) plantar fasciitis, which is “so unpleasant that I (he) can barely run or lift anymore”. The addressing of his connective tissue imbalances miraculously cured this condition. Christopher McDougall, even though he runs among the Amish farms of rural Pennsylvania, obviously does not have all of the above ifs…
I have critically observed & worked with many hundreds of runners both as a coach & running biomechanics specialist. I work with the individual running quirks of many world class athletes & regular athletes. I address each one according to need. Some actually need less orthotic, less support, less cushioning. Many have feet that have atrophied & lost critical motion capabilities because of overly restrictive or ill-advised footwear or orthotics. Many can benefit from time spent walking or even some small amount of running barefoot on well cushioned surfaces like grass or synthetic grass surfaces – this will return neuromuscular feel & function; this will teach true elastic-loading & unloading. This will also strengthen critical muscles & tendons in the foot & lower leg. It is a very gradual process & prescribed not because the athlete desires to run barefoot full time, but to heal & enhance their running experience. But even if the greatest runners in the world, with the exact background as I have described above attempted to do the training volumes & training intensities required to make the living that they do on the roads of Boston, London, New York & Chicago & then race on those surfaces at those speeds they would surely all break down – only one man has ever won an Olympic marathon barefoot & his name is Abebe Bikile, an Ethiopian who ran 2:15 barefoot because he was such a late entry into the Ethiopian team, Adidas could not find him a pair of shoes that fit – he had trained barefoot however. It is interesting to note that his father was a shepherd, so clearly he grew up exactly fulfilling ALL of the above Ifs. He won the next Olympics in 2:12 in Puma shoes. Both the 1st sub 4min South African miler, DeVilliers Lamprecht & Zola Budd ran barefoot & they both told me that eventually their feet gave them so much trouble that they could no longer run (DeVilliers) & that they had to resort to wearing shoes for training & eventually racing as well (Zola). The greatest runner of all, Haile Gebrselassie, realized after being badly beaten in the London Marathon with a time of 2:06, that he would have to forego his habit of running on his forefeet, he would have to lower his heel to the surface to compete against the world’s best. He now runs the marathon 3 minutes faster! He has run in Adidas shoes his entire career. Granted that the elites, that are so much lighter, so much more athletic, so much stronger & that have been conditioned to run since early childhood can wear very minimalist footwear—stands to reason. The great recent winning tradition of Japanese woman in world & Olympic marathoning has shown us that very thin, light-weight shoes can be worn to cover distances in excess of 130 miles per week. However, again, these ladies are tiny & they have very, very high stride rates (hence have very light foot strikes).
Many of the world’s greatest runners are heel strikers – having these athletes switch to barefoot running would no doubt destroy them – I am sure their adversaries would welcome their attempts to become members of the fiercely cultish zealots who say it’s barefoot or nothing.
Before footwear became as advanced as it did, distance running was reserved for only a small select group of men & school children participating in track – the 1st woman’s Olympic marathon only occurred in 1984! Even 5000m was considered too far in the 80s & women could only run a 3000m on the track. All this because we thought running was too hard for most people.

HAD IT NOT BEEN FOR THE ADVENT OF THE MODERN RUNNING SHOE, DISTANCE RUNNING AS WE KNOW IT TODAY, A SPORT OF HEALTH, FITNESS & HEROIC PARTICIPATION WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN ACCESSIBLE TO THE MASSES. IT WOULD HAVE REMAINED A SPORT FOR A SMALL COMMUNITY BLESSED WITH THE PHYSIOLOGY & MECHANICS OF A BORDER COLLIE. THE LUNATIC FRINGE WHO NOW SO IRRESPONSIBLY & VEHEMENTLY VILIFY RUNNING SHOES WOULD HAVE US RETURN TO THOSE DAYS WHEN NONE BUT A FEW MECHANICALLY BLESSED INDIVIDUALS WOULD HAVE ACCESS TO A SPORT THAT SAVES & ENHANCES THE LIVES OF MILLIONS.
Could anyone with the patience & access to intelligent guidance pursue the holy grail of running some distance barefoot? Yes they could pursue it, but would the end justify the process – could they ALL succeed? Nope – many may be called by this current reigniting of the debate, but very few will be chosen & the humble PT & local running shoe store will again have salve & solace for the many who simply desire to go for a run…
It is so easy to attack big brother – but how many know of the global efforts of the top footwear companies to do exactly the opposite of what the BFR-or-die bunch say. Why would great running stores like the Boulder Running Company & top shoe companies like Brooks (http://www.facebook.com/l/f1503;www.brooksrunning.com/media/File/0900_barefoot_running_whitepage.pdf - a great series follows this by various top specialists in the field, a worthwhile read & very, very responsible of Brooks to issue), want to injure individuals? Surely they too are in the business of serving their community with equipment that enhances their experience & reduces their risk of injury – if Toyota produces a car that injures people it recalls it; similarly if a shoe company produces a shoe that fails to function, they replace it with a more effective model; shoe stores choose lines based on what they, as experts, believe will serve runners’ best interests. I have watched Nike's efforts with their Free shoe & praise them for being both innovative & responsible with their product & marketing - like everybody else, they still make plenty of shoes for average runners who could only run with the cushioning & support provided.
Even the greatest ultra distance runner of them all, Scott Jurek (also praised & described at length in Born to Run), feels that BFR need not be one or the other, but can serve as a great tool for a number of things.

Much can be done to enhance the running mechanics of the individual. I have been blessed to have been placed in the position to help many who hurt themselves through poor running technique or shoes, or help others run faster. I do this by teaching appropriate running skills & suggesting to both on occasion, that they consider changes in footwear; I will even recommend the use of barefoot or minimalist footwear walking & running as one of a number of effective tools, but what I won’t be doing any time soon is suggesting that the only true “Cool Aid©” to be drinking is that of barefoot running!

6 comments:

  1. Interesting thoughts. Shoe geometry is an important factor in how one runs, and I'd be extremely surprised if the lifted heel in vritually all modern running shoes doesn;t effect gait.

    The definition of "heel strike" is interesting. If this is where a shoe first contacts the ground during the gait cycle then pretty much anyone running in a shoes with a heel lift is a heel striker. Remove the heel and look at where maximum load occurs under the foot and the definition may be very different.

    19th century pedestrians covered huge distances (1,000 miles wasn't uncommon) in times that are handy by today's ultra-running standards - and in footwear with essentially no cushioning. The American indian's llikewise covered ultra-distance (north of 100 miles) in remarkable times, in mocasins.

    Yannis Kouros is arguably the gretest ultra-runner of all time, being undefeated and holding every world record in every distance between 100 and 1,000 miles, and 1 to 10 days (not to mention he is over 50 yeras old.)

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  2. I just finished up my college career and now switched to barefoot/minimalist running. It feels awesome for me, but I'm not going to throw away my Brooks (even though I'm only running in Vibram Five-fingers) right now. I think you've given a balanced and realistic approach, thanks.

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  3. Barefoot running is a big challenge for me...it is a hard running than regular run...

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