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Mark Plaatjes on barefoot/minimalist running

January 22nd, 2010

[1/27: For more on this debate, see here.]

Mark Plaatjes, the marathon gold medalist at the 1993 world championships and longtime physical therapist to running stars in Boulder, has posted his thoughts about the current fad for barefoot/minimalist running on Facebook. It’s an interesting read. He starts with five facts that (he says) no one would dispute:

1. Running barefoot/minimalist strengthens the intrinsic or postural muscles in the feet and lower leg.
2. Running barefoot/minimalist increases proprioceptive awareness and balance.
3. Running barefoot/minimalist forces a change in mechanics to adapt to the forces on the feet.
4. There are no clinical trials that show an effect of barefoot/minimalist running for a prolonged period of time.
5. There are no research studies that prove that wearing traditional running shoes increases injuries or that barefoot/minimalist running reduces injuries.

I’d agree with these statements.

He then discusses the distinction between “good” and “bad” heel-striking. People who overstride come crashing down on their heels, braking with each stride. This is bad. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that ALL heel-striking is bad — if you’re running with a short enough stride, so that your centre of gravity is above your heel when you land, that’s a perfectly good stride, Plaatjes says. In other words, not everybody has to become a forefoot striker, despite the claims made by minimalist advocates.

After that, the article starts to ramble a bit, and I’m less clear what his point is. He does make an interesting claim: that 65 to 75% of people are unable to run barefoot because they have inadequate foot structure and mechanics (and he can tell by looking at their feet). He starts to lose me here, since he doesn’t back up this statistic. But I think his first five points (which I quoted above) are a good starting point for any discussion of this issue — because if you disagree (particularly with points 4 and 5), you’ve probably bought some snake oil.

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  1. Asterix
    January 22nd, 2010 at 17:28 | #1

    This snake oil you mention, will it help me run faster? Where might I purchase some?

  2. January 25th, 2010 at 17:19 | #2

    Hmmm,interesting stuff – all seems perfectly clear to me. Interesting how hot under the collar some folk get. Stats can be skewed to suit whichever side the zealot sits on. Technically & empirically I have a couple of penny’s worth to add, but for now I guess readers/runners/triathletes need to look at their own personal safety & performance needs, consider their backgrounds & proceed with caution.

  3. John Lofranco
    January 27th, 2010 at 13:01 | #3

    People probably get hot because they have running shoes to sell. For others, all that really matters is what works for you, so if you run barefoot and don’t get injured, it is irrelevant what any studies do or don’t say. On the other hand, if you twist your ankle running around the grassy loop in the park with no shoes because it is your first time going barefoot, well, citing studies that claim running shoes would have saved you is also kind of pointless.

  1. January 23rd, 2010 at 09:18 | #1
  2. January 27th, 2010 at 18:51 | #2