Sunday, October 24, 2010

barefoot running opinion essay

written: 4/25/10


Running in traditional running shoes is damaging to the human body. Human beings have only been running in large wedge heeled over cushioned shoes for about the past 40 years. It has been only in the past 40 or so years that we have seen a rise in both the number and the severity of the types of injures that are the constant plague of active runners today. Plantar fasciitis, IT band syndrome, Patellofemoral syndrome (aka; runners knee), these are all conditions that are way more common place than would stand to reason.

Depending on the sources one site's about 40-70% of active runners can expect to become injured over the course of one year of active running. This seems like an extraordinary number of people to be injured by such a simple and innate activity such as running. This injury rate is spread across the board as well; marathoners aren’t more prone to injury than individuals who run 10k’s or 5k’s. It seems as though anyone who has a regular schedule of running will be guaranteed to at some point suffer from one of a multitude of common runner injuries. This seems odd because there is very little in the way of record of these injuries being so common in the past. So it seems that the frequency of injury is a modern phenomenon. Which may lead some individuals to point out that the “jogging trend” was started by Bill Bowerman with the publication of his 1966 book “Jogging.” The injury rates we see today are a result of this increase in the number of people taking up recreational running.

This seems a solid premise till one notices that there is a long history of casual running across cultures of the world, and the curious fact that Bill was also one of the cofounders of Nike, and that the increase in injuries sustained by this new crowd of “joggers” runs a pretty close race with the sales of Nike shoes.

The concept of adding a cushioned heel to the shoe was that the runner would have something softer to land on and that it would cause his body to lean forward and add some minor “propulsion” to the stride of the runner based on the incline of the heel. All these assumptions were based on what might be charitably described as “hunches.” The result of these hunches and decades of advertising (though propaganda is a more apt term in my opinion) the “common wisdom” of the modern day is that the human body is not well suited to running for any significant distance, and that doing so is to incur great injury. The “solution” to this “problem” has been the liberal application of cushioning to shoes, along with air pockets, and a vast array multicolored dials and knobs that I will never understand (apologies to Hunter).

However, as time has marched on the amount of technology we pump into these shoes increases, the one thing that is supposed to happen never seems to. The injury rates have not gone down at all. We have been led astray by the shoe companies for so long that the idea of massive cushioning seems to be a-priori knowledge almost. It’s only been in within the last decade that people have truly started to question the reasoning behind this shoe design. If the claim that running hurts people is true, and the claim that running with these shoes will reduce the risk of injury, and there is a new shoe design every 6 months that purports to have “better” technology, why has the injury rate stayed the same?

Let us assume then the claim humans are poorly built for running (which is a claim that is getting quite a bit of doubt cast on it (Lieberman, Daniel. et all).) If that is true then in groups of people who run without the “aid” of modern running shoes we should see a significant spike in the number of injuries sustained. What we see is the exact opposite. Among the Tara Humara Indians of northern Mexico, a people known for their extreme running predilection, there are almost no cases of all the common ailments suffered by runners who use modern running shoes. The same holds for the various groups of runners in Africa. So then with that information in mind we move to a study (Lieberman, Daniel. et all) that shows that evolutionarily speaking humans are evolved to be incredibly capable distance runners. Persistence hunting is a method were the prey is literally run to death by the hunter. This method relies on the fact that most mammals perspire through their mouth (panting) and are not particularly efficient at dissipating heat. Humans are able to perspire over our entire bodies, and are capable of doing it while running and breathing in the manner required by that activity level. Something most animals are not capable of. While not nearly as fast as quadrapedalism, bipedalism is biomechanically significantly more efficient in terms of the energy use required for distance covered. Case in point once the distances become great enough we can run down almost any animal on earth. There is a Man vs. Horse race in Wales where humans on foot have beaten horses in a 22 mile race, there are video’s of African hunters running down kudu, literally chasing the animal until it falls over from exhaustion, then walking up and thrusting a spear in the animal while it gasps for air. There is ample evidence to suggest that humans are evolved to run great distances, those that claim that humans are not well suited are spreading lies so as to enforce the perceived need for specialized products for running. Science is starting to support the theories that have been gaining momentum over the past few years (Kerrigan DC, et all). The backlash of course is building momentum and trying to discredit the idea of the health benefits of barefoot running. What’s strange is there is no research to support a lot of the claims made by the opposing camp (Richards, Craig E. Parker, Magin. Robin, Callister.) What we hear is mostly fear mongering from those individuals who stand to lose money over the loss of shoe sales, or from the medical side of the equation, loss of sales in custom orthotics (a very large business.) As of yet there has yet to be any reasoned response to the evidence coming out of various studies and the growing number of personal anecdotes from runners who have suffered for years in traditional shoes but are now running pain free in minimalist or no shoes at all.

The fact that there is no research to back up claims, no logical reason to support the claims, and no history of success to back up the claims implies that the claim made by the major shoe manufacturers are fallacious at best and purposely harmful at worst. While I am not inclined to think that the orthopedic shoe insert business is in collusion with the major shoe manufacturers in creating a death spiral of injury causing shoes, orthotics to ease the pain of injury and furthered injury as a result of the individual not actually receiving any actual treatment for the injury. It certainly seems like that is the way things have turned out. I think it’s important for people to stop trusting people whose only concern is the monetary health of their company. It doesn’t pay Nike to bother to pay attention to what is or is not healthy. They will respond only to market pressures that affect their sales. The change will come from people finally realizing that they have been lied to for so long and demanding shoes that won’t injure them while running. As with so many ills, both in our personal lives and in terms of a the greater context of our society, it is the hoi polloi who will effect change, that is assuming they can get up off their butts and chase after it.




Works cited:

Richards, Craig E. Parker, J, Magin. Robin, Callister. Is your Prescription of Distance Running Shoes Evidence Based? British journal of sports medicine April 18 2008

Hirschm├╝ller A, Baur H, M├╝ller S, Helwig P, Dickhuth HH, Mayer F. Clinical Effectiveness of Customised Sport Shoe Orthoses for Overuse Injuries in Runners- a Randomized Controlled Study. British journal of sports medicine Nov, 1, 2009

Kerrigan DC, Franz JR, Keenan GS, Dicharry J, Della Croce U, Wilder RP. The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques. PM&R: The Journal of Injury, Function , and Rehabilitation. Dec, 2009

S.Robbins, E.Waked. Balance and Vertical Impact in Sports: Role of Shoe Sole Materials*1 Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Volume 78, Issue 5, Pages 463-467

Lieberman, Daniel. Dennis, M. Bramble. David ,A. Raichlen. John, J. Shea. The First Humans-Origin and Evolution of the Genus Homo. Chapter 8; Brains Brawns and the Evolution of Human Endurance Running Capabilities.

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