Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
3 Feb

A Sea Change Coming to Wash Your Shoes Away

barefootI’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s all over the news. People are finally beginning to come around to that inconvenient truth about our feet, that dirty little secret that shoe companies would prefer to keep under wraps: barefoot is better.

There has been media coverage of the barefoot trend in the past, mostly intermittent, in running magazines and always taking a patronizing tone. It follows the same formula: more idle speculation on a bizarre fad that a select few crazies are promoting, with plenty of “balance” from stuffy foot specialists expressing doubt that the inherently fragile, gentle human foot could ever withstand the rigors of walking unshod without “serious injury,” than any serious consideration of the merits. But now we’ve got a nice, juicy study to hang our hats (or our shoes) on, and media outlets are falling over themselves to get the scoop.

Witness the Boston Globe’s take on the whole thing, or the LA Times feature. The Edmonton Journal got into the action, too, as did the Telegraph, while even San Jose’s Mercury News mentioned the study. The Popular Science blog did a piece on it. And of course, the rest of the blogosphere picked up on it, too: Open Water Chicago, Conditioning Research, and the Chi Running blog, to name just a few.

The study in question was Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman’s on “Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners.” (See comparison videos below. The difference between shod heel strike running and barefoot forefoot strike running is visually and graphically captured. For more on what you’re seeing check out NPR’s coverage.) It’s hard to believe that this is the first study of its kind, though, probably because it actually isn’t. Last year, researchers ran a similar study and decided that “Footwear Alters Normal Form and Function of the Foot” by exerting acute pressure to sensitive areas of the foot, whereas barefoot walkers enjoyed wider forefeet and more evenly distributed locomotive stress. Interesting, but probably because it didn’t make any bold pronouncements and because it dealt with the relatively mundane act of walking (rather than running), the study didn’t get any press. They could have recommended people throw off their shoes, but that wouldn’t be prudent. It wouldn’t be responsible. I can’t fault them for that, really. Researchers need funding, and you don’t want to make bold pronouncements if it means getting cut off or reprimanded. Unfortunately, scientists need to be bold to effect real change.

Even when the “experts” get it so, so right, they do their best to get it wrong in the end, or they hedge their bets and stick with the safe answer, rather than question Conventional Wisdom entirely (even if the data contradicts CW directly). I’m reminded of when Gary Taubes famously lamented a similar mindset in physicians and obesity researchers who, although they understood (and even witnessed in a clinical setting) the chronic insulin/body fat connection, continued to recommend the standard low-fat, high-carb, low-calorie diet to their patients. They connect all the dots, but fail to see the bigger picture clearly outlined by those dots. To their credit, though, researchers can and do make sensible recommendations within the context of Conventional Wisdom. The researchers from that walking study did ultimately call for the design of “quality footwear” that doesn’t “hamper the foot’s biologically normal function.” Better than nothing, I suppose.

Now, even though I agree with Lieberman’s conclusions (actually, because I’m such a huge fan of barefoot), it pays to be critical. I know Lieberman has affiliations with Vibram – in fact, he may have even helped them design the Fivefingers – and that they probably funded the study, and I know that we hem, haw, and cast skeptical eyes on Pfizer when they fund yet another statin paper. There’s a major difference between the two, though: Lieberman is right. His data is strong. He isn’t hiding anything or fudging the results. We’re right. Barefoot is better. There’s no shame in that, you know – being right. There are objective truths out there, and the objective truth is that most people aren’t born with genetically defective feet. Everyone’s imperfect, sure, but for the most part we’ve all got the same basic equipment with the same basic biomechanics working under the hood. Unless you have a birth defect, no one is born with feet that “won’t work right” or that “require shoes”. The flat footed (no arch) argument doesn’t stand up as an excuse, except when you’ve already spent a lifetime coddling your feet in supportive casts. A cautionary word that anyone transitioning to a barefoot lifestyle should take it VERY easy at first.

There was one more response to the barefoot running study that bears mentioning: Brooks (world famous running shoe company) CEO Jim Weber’s scrambling blog post. You know – I feel for the guy. It’s gotta be tough to make a reasonable response to a scientifically sound piece of research that refutes almost everything you’ve built your business on. I mean, what is he supposed to do? Admit that he’s been wrong this whole time? Admit that his shoes are basically coffins for the feet? Naturally, he goes with the entirely unsubstantiated claim that the “vast majority of runners” should race “in a performance running shoe, not barefoot.” Apparently, we barefooters are a genetically gifted breed of athlete who are “biomechanically blessed” with “natural healthy gaits.” Hmm. So, the natural, normal gait is actually somehow rare and precious. It doesn’t occur naturally. Got it. Jim, did you ever stop to think why so many of your runners seem to lack that natural healthy gait? Perhaps it’s the shoes. Our “unique biomechanical needs” are only unique because we’ve been smashing, smushing, and confining our feet to too-small, too-constrictive, too-structured footwear for years. Check out your comments section, dude. The people have spoken. You can’t ignore anecdotal evidence pouring in from all sides forever.

I eagerly await your upcoming, inevitable barefoot-analogous running shoe model.

When the CEO of a major running shoe company makes a public acknowledgment, that’s a sign. A sea change is undoubtedly occurring here, folks. The media may help spur things along, but they’re just reporting what’s really happening out there. If there wasn’t a massive audience for the barefoot message present and willing to get out there and experiment for themselves, there’d be no story. Just check out the comment sections for all the blogs and all the newspaper articles dealing with the study. In previous barefoot articles, most of the comments were either dubious or dismissive of the “fad”; now, the naysayers clinging to their Nikes are being drowned out by barefoot evangelists. I applaud them.

You’re part of what made this possible. Now, let’s hope the rest of the Primal Blueprint gains some ground out there!

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