Minimalism: three perspectives
Three interesting blog posts that anyone interested in the ongoing debate over minimalist shoes will be interested in:
First, Amby Burfoot had a brief Q&A with Irene Davis, a top researcher and barefoot advocate formerly at Delaware and now at Harvard, in advance of last week’s ACSM meeting. She discusses a few bits of upcoming research, and the freshest wrinkle from my perspective was a study on balance with and without socks:
It was determined that a thin pair of socks causes a statistically significant reduction in balance, suggesting that they filtered out important sensory information.
We often talk about barefoot running and minimalist shoes like Vibrams as essentially the same thing — but maybe there’s something intrinsically superior about going totally barefoot in terms of “dynamic stability.”
Second, Ross Tucker at the Science of Sport has a lengthy post that sums up his take on the barefoot debate starting with a very basic intro — perfect for those who want to get up to speed but haven’t been following the debate closely. This post sums up my own positions on the pros and possible cons of barefoot running absolutely perfectly, so I highly recommend it!
One interesting point that Ross makes is the difference between running and training for high performance. As he points out, it’s highly unlikely that our caveman forebears ever tried running 120 to 200K per week at relatively high speeds. At those training levels, muscle fatigue may become a limiting factor:
The third presentation in the symposium showed some really interesting evidence that the loading on the joints and bones was HIGHER as muscles fatigued. This stands to reason, of course – muscle absorbs much of the impact force, and so tired muscle loses that ability, exposing the joints.
So those who are training for performance may struggle because of a muscle fatigue issue – the muscle is working differently, and harder in certain muscles, when barefoot, and that may be limiting.
Finally, Pete Larson at Runblogger has an epic post where he takes on the outspoken Asics researcher Simon Bartold (who I interviewed a few years ago for this article), with the discussion continuing in the comments section. What’s funny to me here is that I think the two of them are in pretty close agreement about the current state of evidence for (and against) normal and minimalist shoes — which is to say, there’s some suggestive biomechanical data but a complete dearth of convincing epidemiological or interventional data in either case.
The difference is in where they see the burden of proof. Bartold seems to hold minimalist advocates to a higher standard of evidence than he holds “current state of the art” shoes with a raised heel. Pete takes the opposite view:
Since evidence seems to be a popular word in this discussion, what evidence is there that this [shoes with raised heels] is safe? Shouldn’t the burden of proof be on the company making the product to show that it’s safe for the consumer? Isn’t this what drug companies have to do?
This is similar to what Blaise Dubois told me when I spoke to him a few months ago. But I’m not sure I fully buy that. Even if you accept all the evolutionary arguments marshalled in favour of barefoot running, I don’t think it necessarily trumps the experience of recent decades. Say you claim that sleeping in stuffy, poorly ventilated houses leads to respiratory infections, so we should sleep in the trees the way our ancestors evolved to do over hundreds of thousands of years. It might be true. But I’m not going to immediately give priority to a claim based on evolution (even if backed by logic and anecdotal support) and ignore the practical experience over the past few decades of people with whom I have a lot more in common than cavemen. These “modern” running shoes have been out there for the past ~20-30 years — and in that time, I’d bet that more people have run more miles successfully than in the previous couple of millennia cumulatively.
That doesn’t mean the shoes are “good,” or that we shouldn’t be eagerly and actively pursuing alternatives — just that they’ve earned a position as the default option, to be supplanted when something else is shown to be demonstrably better. If we’re using the lingo of drug trials, they’re the current “standard of care” that experimental treatments need to exceed in order to be adopted.