Barefoot running and shoes Q & A Part 1

16 Mar 2010 Posted by

Greetings from Adelaide, where jetlag sees me writing at 3am. At least I have time on my hands! I’m currently on the road again – this time it’s Australia and then Hong Kong, a two week long trip that takes me right up to the Easter weekend in April. For Jonathan, there is also travel on the horizon – a conference in South Africa on heat stroke, and I’m sure we can look forward to some interesting conclusions and discussion from that meeting, with a few posts the outcome for the site!

Running shoes vs barefoot – a Q & A

For now though, I have decided to tackle an issue that, with the exception of the Caster Semenya controversy, usually generates the most chat on this site – running shoes vs barefoot running. We’ve covered this issue before, but there is so much to it that, both theoretically and practically, that we can return to it over and over without ever finding resolution. And when the debate starts on running shoes, it quickly switches to running technique. Here, I’m speaking specifically about the foot strike. There is of course a lot more to running style than how the foot hits the ground – the head, shoulders, arms, hips, knee drive etc are all part of it, and I certainly don’t mean to dismiss their importance. But, the huge debate in running circles exists around how the foot lands and whether we should run in shoes – these two questions have become controversies and are inter-linked thanks to the philosophy of how one affects the other, and the advent of commercialized running techniques based on this link.

So the series of posts starting today will address these issues. I’m going to look at it slightly differently, and that’s partly because of my travels which have in the past prevented any posts. So what this series will consist of is a question and answer session, a total of 16 questions that were recently put to me by Run 2 Day, a Dutch-based running website (Run 2 Day for our Dutch readers). Thank you to Erno for the questions and for allowing my modified and translated answers to be republished here.

So it should be a four, perhaps 5 part series, looking at four or five questions per day. Obviously, this format means that there will be topics not covered in each post, but possibly addressed in future posts. Bear with me on that aspects – a single post on such a diverse topic is not possible!

Also, as always, we aim to have the first word in the debate, not the last. And so your feedback is most welcome (usually, you don’t have to invite runners to discuss this issue. Perhaps because the shoe is really the only equipment we need, runners don’t hesitate to throw their hat into the ring!). I’m going to apologize right now if I can’t respond to all your questions – I’ll do my best, but time is limited (except at 3am in the morning, it seems). Here goes:

Interview 1: Introduction, terms and concepts

What do you think about the term ‘natural running’?

Clearly this term by itself is already marketing. It positions running with shoes with little cushioning as ‘natural’ vs ‘un natural running’.

Simple question, very complex answer! Perhaps over the course of the next 16 questions, my thoughts will become clearer, but the short answer is that “natural” seems to be whatever you wish to define it as.  Those who start from the point of believing that we need to change our technique will define natural running in a way that is similar to barefoot running. On the other hand, if you start out of the opinion that our default technique is better, then natural means ‘without intervention’.

It also depends on context – since this particular debate is about shoes vs barefoot, and the resultant changes in running technique, I’ll limit my definition to that.

To some, the concept of teaching running form is already unnatural. If someone goes out for a run and without any intellectual input, falls into a particular stride and footstrike, that is “natural” in that it is the default option. Taught technique would thus be unnatural.

However, the argument is a little more complex that that – we look at the Kenyan running champions as “natural” because they run without the technical analysis that we subject ourselves to, and they also run without shoes. And I guess this forms the basis for what is defined as “natural” within the context of the current argument. Here, people are looking at these athletes who often learn to run without shoes, and they observe a number of things:

  1. Fewer injuries
  2. Faster running
  3. Apparently “smoother” running

Note that all three are somewhat subjective. There is no causal link between their being barefoot and running faster, and while I suspect it’s probably true, I haven’t seen evidence of fewer injuries, let alone the association with how they run.

In any event, people then create in this picture the definition of the term “natural” running. In the hands of marketers, natural becomes better (perhaps given added fuel by the current global trend towards going “green”), and the concept is born.

So the issue has been simplified right down to a very basic level, as you say – natural means running barefoot (or in lightweight shoes), whereas unnatural means following conventional wisdom and believing that shoes do have a role to play in preventing injury. Those are the two extreme positions – which is correct? Hard to say, and the middle ground may be the ultimately safe destination.

Is there ‘a natural way to run’? And if so, how would you describe ‘the natural way to run’?

If I were pushed to commit to a definition of “natural running”, I would (rather conservatively and certainly more literally) say that natural running form is the form you adopt without any external input, or any conscious thoughts about how to run. It is the way you run when you simply run, no cognitive thoughts of how to position your arms, how to land, how to lift the heel versus driving the knee forward – in the absence of all those instructions, we run ‘naturally’.

Note that I am not saying that this is better. I am not one who prescribes to the view that natural is best, and for this reason, there are a number of very important and effective adjustments that can be made to the running technique. Time and space don’t allow me to go into all of them right now, but some will emerge later in this series, others are not relevant right now anyway.

But I believe the natural way to run is the unadjusted one, but the best way to run is the modified natural form. And of course, equipment will influence this.

While on that point, there is a significant logic problem in play here. If we define “natural” as how we run without shoes (refer to Q1), then the change in mechanics that occurs when we run with shoes has been deemed to be ‘unnatural’. Yet the natural response to wearing shoes is to shift the landing to the heel. Now, this is defined as bad, according to the argument. However, one must explain why the body, which is clever enough to ‘naturally’ force us to land on the front of the foot when we take shoes off, is suddenly “fooled” into landing badly (on the heel) when we wear the shoe. We could quite easily land on the forefoot when in shoes – plantar flex at the ankle, bend the knee, make the same kinematic changes as when we are barefoot (see Q4). But we don’t, we are either “fooled” into landing on the shoe’s elevated heel, or we allow the heel-strike because we know that forcing a forefoot landing may be equally bad (or a combination of the two).

This is why the argument that “natural is better” is flawed – either natural is not always better, or running in shoes combined with the change in mechanics is still optimal. So I think upfront, we must put behind us the marketing message that has convinced us that barefoot is better, and actually evaluate the evidence objectively.

I believe the term ‘natural gait’ was used in the 80’s already related to running. Are we talking here about the same thing?

I’m not sure – the people who used the term in the 1980s would have done so in a very specific context, and not knowing that, it would be dangerous to say yes or no with any certainty. I suspect, based on my reading of some books from that era, that their definition of ‘natural’ was a more global one, referring to the arms, the position of the head, the hips, the stride. Part of it would have overlapped, but I think this is a slightly different argument. It’s certainly much more specific, because the debate now revolves around the footstrike and the influence of shoes, which will have been rather minor back then.

Next up: changes in mechanics and shoes

Tomorrow we’ll move onto changes in running technique caused by the shift from shoes to barefoot running, and whether it prevents injury and makes you a faster runner.


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