Is Barefoot Best For Distance Runners?
I was recently asked by a Twitter follower to give my opinion on the “anti-running-shoe theorists and barefoot is best advocates“.
I was also asked to give some clarity as to why, despite the growing trend of barefoot running, we don’t see elite runners opting for Zola Budd style barefoot running in competition, or elite marathoners running any of the many barefoot footwear options now on the market.
So, here we go…
The Fitness Industry Is Nuts!
Those of us who’ve been in and around in the Fitness Industry for a few years, either as professionals or consumers, have seen trends come and go, from MBTs to The Atkins Diet.
With every new trend you seem to get two distinct camps:
The Evangelists – For whom the given trend is the one life-changing answer to all problems. This is the key group that marketers of the new system / product rely on, as they tend to shout the loudest, often in lieu of any solid research to support their claims.
The Skeptics – The bunch who are quite happy doing what the’ve always done, when it comes to their training. They are certainly not ready to embrace the perceived left-field ways of the evangelist group.
Regardless of the nature of the trend, I rarely see a middle ground between these two polar groups – even despite the old saying: Everything is best in moderation… More on this with regard to barefoot running later!
The Best Coaching Advice I Ever Received
A wise coach and mentor of mine, once gave me some great advice for embracing different coaching concepts. To paraphrase, he advised me that subscribing to one specific method alone, is a lazy way of coaching. Instead, the educated coach will try and learn as much about each different approach as possible, applying the best elements of each, and discarding elements of less use.
In my opinion, this approach is why you don’t see truly elite-level running coaches overtly calling themselves POSE Method, Chi Running or Barefoot Running coaches.
Take Alberto Salazar, coach to Mo Farah, Galen Rupp and other world class distance runners. He’s known to be big on running technique and strength training. This stems from a good understanding of sound biomechanical principals, and the ability to apply these in coaching individual athletes, rather than rigidly adhering to a pre-determined branded method of technique coaching, although he does seem to advocate many of the positive elements of POSE.
As a coach, I am far from finished article. While constantly trying to understand more, I’m inspired by the fact that I will never know it all. None of us will!
But that’s the fun of working as a coach isn’t it? There’s always more to learn!
So, What About Barefoot Running?
I actually believe that barefoot running is not a passing trend. I’m pretty convinced that it’s here to stay. However, it definitely seems to conform to my ‘Fitness Industry Trends’ (FIT… see what I did there) rule described above.
Most runners I see making the change to barefoot seem to approach it as a wholesale change, starting again from scratch, building up their running milage, doing it all either completely barefoot or (more likely) in zero-drop shoes, Vibram Five Fingers or similar.
Don’t get me wrong, many people find great benefit in making this change, and get over long standing injuries that way. After all, the currently inconclusive research shows that there are quite possibly quantifiable benefits in the changes in running form that barefoot running encourages.
FORM BEFORE FOOTWEAR
Here’s my main point, it’s not the act of running without shoes per se that holds the benefit, it’s the changes in running style that this act encourages.
These fundamental changes in running form (such as an increased cadence, the move away from the common over-striding heel strike, and improved posture) are usually encouraged by running barefoot, but are also reproducible in more traditional running footwear. Particularly when running in the growing range of shoes which hit a middle ground between barefoot and heavily cushioned.
It’s an in joke amongst my friends that I love my Asics Hyperspeeds, and do the vast majority of my milage in them – these are a good example of the type of “middle ground” minimalist running shoe I’m talking about.
EVERYTHING IS BEST IN MODERATION
As I alluded to earlier, there is no need to place yourself in either the Evangelist or Skeptic camp when it comes to barefoot running.
For many years, long before the publication of “Born to Run” and subsequent trendiness of barefoot running, many top-level coaches have been incorporating barefoot into the training programmes of their athletes. For example getting their athletes to perform their drills barefoot or warm-up barefoot on grass, before completing their main running sessions in their personal footwear choice.
This measured approach to incorporating barefoot training into a runner’s programme helps to develop foot and ankle strength, improve running form and enhance proprioceptive feedback. All highly desired effects which will almost certainly carry-over into shod running.
WHY DONT WE SEE MORE ELITE BAREFOOT DISTANCE RUNNERS?
The following is purely speculation on my part, backed up by very limited (albeit interesting) research which poses as many questions as it answers!
In a 2012 study lead by Dr. Roger Kram and his students at the University of Colorado, it was concluded that in a very small sample (n=12) of experienced male runners, each with considerable barefoot experience, running barefoot provided no metabolic advantage when compared to running in lightweight, cushioned running shoes. In fact, shod runners we’re shown to use 3% to 4% less metabolic effort for the same speed and distance as those running barefoot with with weights added to the foot to simulate the mass of an equivalent running shoe.
A subsequent study by Dr. Kram’s group devised a method to isolate cushioning as the one variable. Thus they were able to observe changes in running metabolic efficiency as levels of cushioning available to the foot changed. Again with a very small sample (n=10) of experienced barefoot runners, all displaying a midfoot strike, they concluded that (in this group of midfoot runners) cushioning reduces the metabolic cost of running. They also identify that further research is obviously required.
This leads me to think that while barefoot running is a very useful training tool for improving running form and building strength in runners (when appropriately added to a training programme), it’s probably not the best option for runners who complete the high milage and intensity of run training required at elite-levels.
So, perhaps a minimalist shoe which combines a little cushioning with a low heel-to-toe drop is the way forward. This might allow for improvements in running form, while providing a little cushioning. That’s certainly what we see the majority of elite level distance runners wearing.
Let’s also not forget the financial rewards available to runners in the form of sponsorship from running shoe manufacturers. Would you walk away from that and go barefoot?! But enough on that already.
I don’t think there is one particular correct answer on this topic, certainly not one with a solidly researched evidence base. Every runner is different. The semi-rant above goes a long way to explaining my current thoughts on the subject of barefoot running!
I’m keen to hear any responses to this blog post – in the comment’s section below.
Leave a comment. Ask us a question...