Barefoot running – the safe neutral ground  //  Finding the neutral view in a lively discussion

01 Jun 2010 Posted by

Thanks to everyone for the lively discussion on the previous post on the recent observation (not scientific study!) on a rise in the number of injuries associated with barefoot running.  It certainly stimulated much more debate than I could keep up with, especially while travelling back from the UK.

I know we’ve received many, many comments in response, and many readers don’t read those comments (though if you have some time, there are some good views), so I felt I’d try to wrap up the barefoot post with a final word of my own (I am 100% sure that this topic will come up again in the future, so don’t worry)

A debate where the prudent approach is the only one…for now

It strikes me that of the many issues in sports science, this is the one where taking the neutral, fence-sitting position is really the only option until proven otherwise.

Those who follow the site will know that I’m not usually a “fence-sitter” and I don’t need much encouragement to throw out the clear and unambiguous opinions – for example, Caster Semenya shouldn’t run against women, Oscar Pistorius has an advantage, dehydration doesn’t cause cramp, South African sports administrators are mostly corrupt or incompetent.

But on this one, I just don’t can’t commit to such an extreme view, either way.  And reading through all the debate in the last few days does little to convince me otherwise.  We’ve heard many testimonies about people who have switched to barefoot or minimalist shoes with great success.  Well done, and good for you!  If it has solved your injury problems, or opened up a world of running to YOU, then long may it continue!

But occasionally, we hear from someone who tried and failed and wishes they’d never discovered barefoot running.  I maintain that this latter group is in the minority – most people who try it out, fail, and get injured, will go back to shoes and keep running, sometimes injured, sometimes well.  These people, I suspect, don’t often share their views, and certainly not as passionately as those who have succeeded, in large part because the blame for “failure” is often placed at the feet (yes, I know, sorry) of the person who has just failed!  Seriously, who wants to own up to failing at the transition when dozens will simply say “You didn’t do it right”?  Not as many as will share success stories, that’s for sure.

And yes, I hear you on the possibility that these “failed” conversions have erred in their training.  It is a very valid point, one which I think may be true in many of the cases.  But not all.  At least, not until you can prove it to me!   And herein lies the crux.

Testimonies that should be heeded

The point is that guys like Matt have tried barefoot running.  They’re not simply dismissing it out of hand.  And I know Matt, and respect him highly, and he’s a guy who is really open to innovation.  When we wrote our book together, we actually argued on certain areas where I was being more “conservative” than he was with regards to training techniques!  He is someone who will not approach the issue in a closed-minded manner, as his books have demonstrated.  He has shown a willingness to learn, to dismiss “dogma” and to challenge beliefs, and those who are being very critical of his views (and ours) should bear this in mind.

So his views, while more extreme than my own on this topic, should be heard, because if you’re a barefoot supporter, and someone has tried everything, right from running 1 MINUTE a day barefoot to train gradually, and still failed (and they’re also in the top 5% of runners, I might add, not 120kg back-of-the-pack 6 hour marathon runners), then we all need to take heed.

Failure to do so is not only reckless to all those who are hanging on this barefoot movement as the solution, it’s presumptuous to those who have tried and failed.

My thought is that if someone is injured, then it’s likely their training is at fault, regardless of what they have on their feet.  There are some for whom a switch to barefoot will change training and mechanics (especially the knees, as we’ve had pointed out, thank you to those who’ve brought it up).  There are others for whom it will initiate a lifelong series of problems, potentially putting an end to running as they know it.

And that alone makes me cautious.  I’d be very hesitant to commit one way or the other.  And so personal testimonies are very welcome, but to apply a testimony of one (or even a group) to many, that leaves a lot of room for catastrophe!

Thanks again for all the comments, great discussion!

Forthcoming attraction – the FIFA 2010 Football World Cup in SA, and the Science of Football

So I mentioned earlier that I’ve just arrived back from the UK, in what was ultimately a disappointing end to the Sevens Season.  If I had a blog devoted to the sport of rugby, and if I had a following mostly in South Africa, I would fill a month of reading with the reasons and the issues facing the sport.  But alas, I don’t.

I do however know that the biggest single sports event in the world is now imminent here in South Africa.  From arrival at the airport, all the way to my home, the signs for the FIFA 2010 World Cup are everywhere.  The news has been dominated by the build-up, and it promises to be a magical four weeks.

And there will be no better opportunity than this to look at the Science of Football in the coming weeks.  The physiology, performance analysis, altitude, aerodynamics, crowd support and penalty shoot-out dilemmas faced by teams should make for some great discussion.

So look out for that!

Thanks once again!


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