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Barefoot or cushioned: the great running shoe controversy

As posted on ABC.net. Listen to Simon Bartold speak as well. I was to debate him this past July at the APMA National, but he was unable to attend.

What has 26 bones, 33 joints and over one hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments? Your foot. If you’re a runner, your feet have been a contested site over the past five years. Running shoes have become ever more engineered and, counter to that, barefoot running has gained traction. What’s a runner to wear? Amanda Smith investigates.

Just like in art, there are movements, or ‘-isms’, in running. There’s minimalism and there’s maximalism, and these terms refer to what you do, or don’t, put on your feet. Working out how to find your way through the ‘-isms’ and the claims and counter-claims that have been made for various types of running shoes, or running with no shoes at all, is confusing to say the least. So how much of a difference do shoes or the lack thereof make to your running?

Barefoot running was popularised by Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book Born to Run. Minimalism was also propelled by research done by Harvard anthropologist Daniel Lieberman and his colleagues in their Skeletal Biology Lab, who argued in 2010 and 2012 papers that very minimal foot covering and a forefoot strike technique deliver greater running economy and fewer injuries.

I actually started running in bare feet—no shoes at all—but only on grass, on ovals. I remember the first time I did that it felt wonderful. I felt like a kid taking off my shoes on a beach, that feeling of freedom. Of course, my feet and lower legs really hurt for probably a week after that.
Jeff Wallens, recreational runner
Both McDougall and Lieberman are great supporters of the UK-based running coach Lee Saxby. McDougall has described Saxby as ‘the world’s best barefoot running coach’. It’s a label that Saxby is not altogether comfortable with. On the positive side, he says that it’s certainly raised his profile and influence.

‘Born to Run is an excellent story, but it is a story,’ says Saxby. ‘It’s propagated this myth that if you take your shoes and socks off and start running, Mother Nature with all her healing, magical powers will fix all your running injuries.’


‘The reality is very different. When you take your shoes off and go for a run, normally you get injured. So people expect me to sign up to this beautiful lie and they get a bit disappointed when actually it’s quite complicated and difficult.’

Adelaide podiatrist and biomechanist Simon Bartold also sounds a note of caution. ‘I think one of the problems is that the barefoot argument is based on a “well, that’s the way we ran 10,000 years ago” type of discussion,’ he says.

‘What’s being forgotten there is that 10,000 years ago no one lived beyond the age of 30 and they probably all got hunted down by a sabre-toothed tiger because they had blisters of their feet.’

‘The situation is that we live in a modern world where we have man-made surfaces that we run on, we have man-made obstacles that we have to deal with, so some form of footwear for us is really quite critical. The argument then breaks down to how little you can do with, and that’s where the argument becomes polarised.’

Melbourne recreational runner Jeff Wallens, 42, runs to work three times a week. As a schoolboy he was a competitive state-level cross-country runner, and he’s recently been training for half-marathons. Repetitive strain injuries and niggling tendonitis led him to experiment with his running shoes, which were the bulky and heavily cushioned styles that have become conventional over the last few decades.

‘I actually started running in bare feet—no shoes at all—but only on grass, on ovals. I remember the first time I did that it felt wonderful. I felt like a kid taking off my shoes on a beach, that feeling of freedom. Of course, my feet and lower legs really hurt for probably a week after that.’

According to Saxby, there’s a transition in terms of footwear and technique that needs to be made slowly and carefully. He says that the majority of runners who wear conventional shoes are heel strikers, using the same heel-toe movement as for walking.

‘When you run on your forefoot it stresses the anatomy in a different way. So if you’ve had 20 years of running on your heels, if I suddenly change you to running on your forefoot, it just loads the body in a different way and you get sore, and if you do too much of it you get injured.’

Related: The philosophical highs of extreme exercise

While Bartold, who worked for footwear manufacturer ASICS for 10 years, is wary of arguments that look to our Palaeolithic past, he says he is neither anti-barefoot nor anti-minimalist.

‘What I am anti is a one-size-fits-all message,’ he says. ‘It’s not appropriate to say you should be running barefoot. It’s not appropriate to say you must not ever run barefoot.’

‘[Running shoes] absolutely have become over-engineered and over-complicated, so Joe Runner has got virtually no hope of understanding a lot of the stuff that goes into footwear.’

‘One of the real positives that the minimalist movement has brought is it’s certainly true that we need more flexible, lighter footwear that works better with the foot rather than what we’ve seen in the past, which is very stiff, very inflexible footwear that tries to inhibit foot motion. From a sports medicine and biomechanics perspective, that’s never going to really be that great.’

Listen to this episode of The Body Sphere to find out more.
Of course for every action there’s a reaction. In running shoe design, while the trend has been to lighter, thinner-soled shoes, you can go to the opposite extreme. The latest trend is maximalism; shoes have a very thick sole and a larger sweet spot when the foot hits the ground. The concept has hit a chord with ultra-long distance runners, who do a lot of damage to their feet when running hundreds of kilometres.

‘That concept has very much come to mainstream in 2014, and in fact one company that builds maximalist shoes outsells the entire minimalist category now,’ says Bartold.

‘Unfortunately, minimalism made a lot of claims about what it could do for injury or running economy, the energy expended when you run. The maximalist movement hasn’t made any claims at all other than saying they’re comfortable, they’re very cushioned, give them a go.’

Related: What Usain Bolt can teach us about the sporting gene

Lee Saxby likes to talk about feet in relation to proprioception—the awareness you have of your body in space—and how that affects running technique.

‘This is the real benefit of barefoot running,’ he says. ‘You get maximum proprioceptive feedback from your feet. Skilful movement is based on the sensory motor loop, so if you want quality movement output you must have quality sensory input.’

Jeff Wallens says it’s been a great learning experience to take his shoes and socks off and run barefoot on the grass, even though he was sore afterwards.

‘I just had tendonitis move from one tendon to a different one. That made me realise that there’s a whole lot of muscles and things in my feet that I’m not using, and these over-cushioned shoes are taking me further and further away from what I think I’ve now accepted as a more natural style of running, which is a much more minimalist, forefoot style of running.’

For road and track running, Wallens moved to what he describes as a middle-ground shoe—a lot flatter and thinner, with foot protection but not much cushioning. As he’s increased his kilometres recently, he’s returned to a shoe with greater cushioning on long road runs.

‘I think that when I was all minimalist and barefoot, it brought a whole lot of extra conditioning back into my legs, and that’s conditioning that I don’t think I’ve lost because I can now get out onto an oval or a beach and do a few Ks barefoot and not really notice the difference.’

He also says that he key to making decisions about running in barefoot, minimalist or maximalist shoes is trying not to succumb to the hype. His current running shoes are a hybrid trail/road type, which he bought at a discount store for $32.

‘I’m just in that kind of space at the moment, I couldn’t be bothered spending $240 on shoes that just have features that I’d never get any value out of.’

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