Barefoot running and the difference between biomechanics and injury rate studies


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I just noticed that a short article I wrote for Canadian Running‘s May/June issue is now available online. It’s my attempt to provide some context for the studies on barefoot running that made lots of (somewhat wild) headlines at the beginning of the year. It doesn’t offer any definitive conclusions, mainly because I don’t think such conclusions yet exist. My main point is the distinction between biomechanical studies and injury-rate studies. Everyone has been beating up on the shoe industry for years because it relies on the former rather than the latter — but that distinction is suddenly being “forgotten” now that biomechanical studies supporting barefoot running are appearing.

A short excerpt:

[…] There’s no doubt that thinking on footwear has evolved in the last decade or two. For instance, plush cushioning is no longer considered the ultimate defence against injury. “I wish running companies would stop rattling on about ‘gel’ and ‘air’ and so on,” says Simon Bartold, an Australian shoe researcher who consults for Asics. Newer shoes reflect this thinking, he says: Nike has introduced the Free, for example, and Asics has completely abandoned the concept of “motion control.” But rushing to the opposite extreme and claiming that runners of all shapes and sizes should give up shoes makes no sense either – and the new studies certainly don’t support this position. […]

10 Replies to “Barefoot running and the difference between biomechanics and injury rate studies”

  1. I landed on a sharp rock while running in my Vibram FiveFingers about three weeks ago in trails and I have not been able to shake the injury to my plantar fascia since. It’s barely getting better now and it might be another 3 weeks until I can run comfortably again.

    I think bare feet is just crazy on any surface. I can’t afford the risk of a cut and infection. Vibram FiveFingers is good for pavement, concrete and grass. They’ll protect you from cuts but not sharp rocks so stay out of the trails with those.

    I’m anxious to see if the Vibram FiveFingers Bikila will work better on rocks. They’re thicker and designed for running.

  2. Richard,

    You may want to look at the Vibram Trek as well. It has a little beefier sole that is more suitable to trails. I’ve worn the regular KSO’s on technical trails and agree that it can be risky. I’m recieving the Treks shortly and look forward to seeing if they are a little safer.

    Also, even though the FF’s mimic barefoot running pretty well, I do find that it certainly isn’t exactly the same and I still like to supplement with true barefoot on a known safe grassy trail/field.

  3. Like anything, the body can adapt, if you give it time. If I could run barefoot everywhere I would. Not sure how long it will take to adapt.

    I went to see Blaise Dubois (QC physio who is big on the barefoot thing) and he suggested that running surface has less to do with injury related to pounding than most people think. I don’t want to misrepresent him, but my impression was that he said running barefoot on concrete would be fine (with obvious allowances made for glass etc as Richard notes). It seems like with running surface, it’s going from always running on one to always running on another that can cause injury, not that concrete is too hard.

    I’ve also heard Bartold speak. I found him to be a bit of a shill for Asics, but I could be wrong. He suggested that some innovative things were coming down the pipe there.

  4. Interesting comments. I assume it was things like sharp rocks that led us to invent shoes in the first place, not “pronation control” or cushioning. So maybe we just need to go back to find a good balance between protection and freedom of movement…

    “my impression was that he said running barefoot on concrete would be fine…”

    I think the idea that concrete is “too hard” is fading a bit. Researchers (particularly Benno Nigg in Calgary) have found that our bodies provide variable shock absorption by tensing muscles and adjusting joint angles. If you step on concrete or run barefoot, your legs provide the shock absorption; if you step on grass or run in cushioned shoes, the springiness of your legs is automatically reduced to compensate. Where you get into trouble is when the surface isn’t what you expect — they do tricks by having runners run along a soft surface that suddenly turns hard without warning, or vice versa. It’s like when you step off a ledge that you didn’t see.

    Anyway, one theory is that the real problem with concrete is that it’s so regular. That means every stride is identical, and the stresses act in the same way on the same joints with every step. In contrast, “natural” surfaces like grass and dirt are irregular, so that every stride changes slightly. (Interestingly, studies have found that, on a given surface, elite runners have GREATER stride-to-stride variability than novice runners. You’d think practice makes perfect, but that’s not the case. It’s possible that by using slightly different muscles with each stride, you can stave off fatigue for longer — though it’s not clear whether this is a cause or an effect of elite status.)

  5. @John Lofranco
    “I’ve also heard Bartold speak. I found him to be a bit of a shill for Asics…”

    Here’s what I wrote in the article on that topic:
    “Of course, Bartold works for Asics, so we can’t trust him, right? Well, Lieberman’s study was funded by Vibram, which makes the barefoot-simulating FiveFinger. The lead author of the University of Virginia study, Casey Kerrigan, has reportedly left the university to start a company making minimalist shoes. Richards, too, has started a minimalist shoe company.”

    For sure the fact that Bartold works for Asics is relevant to our interpretation of his opinion, but it’s still a voice worth hearing.

  6. I recently started using FF KSOs, & find them great for walking, but not for running on anything but a cushy surface. I also live where there are tons of rocks, stones, etc. For most of my running I just use Nike Frees, which seem almost too cushy on anything but hard &/or rocky surfaces! Having said this, some of the problem with FF seems to be the usual runner thing of excessive gung-ho. One can always slow down & walk over rocky or dangerous stretches of trail, for example. It’s interesting to learn that Vibram is already addressing this problem.

  7. @Richard Ayotte

    Richard – most Vibrams are pretty crappy when it comes to running over sharp rocks. The best is the TrekSport, which has a bit more thickness in the outsole. The others (KSO, Bikila) I reserve for roads.

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