Mark Plaatjes on barefoot/minimalist running

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As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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[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.

Running shoes are worse than high heels (unless you actually read the study)

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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In the comments section of yesterday’s post, John Lofranco raised the topic of a subject that has been popping online and in newspapers over the past few days. You may have seen the headlines: “Running shoes are more dangerous than high heels” and so on. Here’s the press release, and here’s the full text of the study itself, “The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques,” by researchers at the University of Virginia. Here’s the key part of the press release:

In a study published in the December 2009 issue of PM&R: The journal of injury, function and rehabilitation, researchers compared the effects on knee, hip and ankle joint motions of running barefoot versus running in modern running shoes. They concluded that running shoes exerted more stress on these joints compared to running barefoot or walking in high-heeled shoes.

From what I can tell, this is solid research that suffered from the “broken telephone” effect, being successively distorted at each step. First, there’s the data they measured — useful stuff that sheds light on how our legs work. Then there’s the scientific paper, which in my opinion stretches the conclusions a little farther than the data currently warrant. Then there’s the press release, written by a PR person at the journal, which stretches things even further (the study, for instance, did not include any high-heeled shoes, and no direct comparisons between running shoes and high-heeled shoes were possible). Then there are the press articles, which rely on the press release… (There’s also this: “In July, [Kerrigan] left the University of Virginia to start her own company, JKM Technologies LLC, which will focus on developing her shoe in coming years.”)

Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World, in his Peak Performance blog, has written an excellent post in response to this study that is essential reading for anyone interested in running injuries and the role of shoes. As usual, it’s a nuanced point of view that neither praises nor buries the research. He points some of the leaps — the difference between measured torque in the knee and observing arthritis, the mismatched comparison between walking and running forces, the downplaying of the role of stride length. His main message is that this is a very complex field of research where little is known, so we should be open to new results but avoid gratuitous oversimplification. It’s definitely worth a read.