I received an S.O.S. email from my Ironman amiga "Rachel" the other day. She was asking my opinion on 'Barefoot Running.' A popular debate in the running world as of late. Being the go-to guy on such queries I decided to write a little opinion piece on the subject. For those seeking a more intellectual read I suggest the NY Times who recently wrote on the subject.
The hoopla comes from Christopher McDougall, author of "Born To Run." He makes an impressive case for barefoot running. He sites his time with the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons who have been barefoot running since childhood. McDougall's book is an impressive piece which blends both scientific and practical case studies to show how running barefoot may help to prevent injuries.
The theory goes that running barefoot strengthens the muscles & tendons of the foot and lower leg. Running in cushioned shoes (running shoes) with stabilizers and support properties weakens the body by failing to encourage these same muscles to get stronger. As a result of poor lower leg strength we are exposed to an array of running injuries: Plantar Faciaitis, Shin Splints, Achilles Tendonitis, Etc. In many regards I agree. The problem is where the rubber meets the road (or lack thereof.) It is my contention that running barefoot as an adult will lead to injury faster than sensibly paced & progressed mileage in any decent running shoe.
Don't believe me? Believe your feet! Go to your local HS track and run barefoot. Try this for a few days and tell me what you think.
There is truth that running shoes act as a crutch/brace to the muscles in your feet. However, they also protect us from sharp objects, slippery surfaces and the impact of the earth beneath us. I blame less the folks at Nike and Adidas and more the overzealous running programs that most people are attempting as the blame for the injury rate in running. More truth is that "all non-traumatic injuries are training related. All “itises” are overuse.If you didn't fall off something or get hit by something, you did something wrong in your training!"
Most endurance athletes develop injuries not due to excessive footwear, but due to an excessive mentality. "If 5 miles is good than 8 miles must be better. I can go faster, I don't need rest, I never take a day off." Thus begins the injury cycle:
Ingestion - Anti-Inflamatories.
Incision-"Let's take a look."
This is followed by Physical Therapy which is like crack to the Endurance Athlete. Physical Therapists love these patients because they know they'll be back. Again & Again.
So what to do? Give up Running? NO. Don't just train - Train Smart. Fix the weak links, Get adequate rest, Eat appropriate nutrition and wear running shoes that are proper for your foot.
Running barefoot is great for the beach and maybe certain Mexican Indians but I can't endorse it as the solution for all that ails my running Amigos & Amigas.