Thursday, September 03, 2009

Running Barefoot - But Not On A Treadmill

This is a very small story, just an application of 'rules is rules', but it is interesting in the way shows how things are justified and how fragments of ideas can float around.

It really started with my recent post about running styles and the realisation that although I naturally midfoot/forefoot strike and I have in the past discovered the pleasure of running barefoot, I spend all my time in standard, neutral, cushioned shoes. I was thinking about this when I was pushing some weights and looking at other people of the treadmills. There was quite a lot of heavy thumping and some of the runners really slapped their feet down and my thoughts wandered to what it is that makes some people lighter on their feet than others. It has nothing to do with actual bodyweight, as the person with the loudest foot strike was quite slightly built, but must have something to do with trying to force things too hard. The essence of good style I thought must be to move along the surface as lightly as possible not to drive the feet into the ground.

I then thought it would be fun to try a little barefoot running so I left my shoes by the side of the treadmill and started running just wearing very lightweight socks . I had forgotten how good it is to feel the foot moving freely - the way the forefoot spreads-out when it lands and then how the heel lightly touches the surface before it is lifted-off. I was quite enjoying myself, feeling a little bit looser and playing about running at different speeds, when one of the members of staff came over and told me to stop as it was mandatory to run in trainers.

"Why?" I asked
"Health and safety" was the reply
"What am I being protected from?"
"Things falling on your feet and you could catch your socks and be thrown off the machine."

But I think he was a bit embarrassed about these reasons and his heart was not into trying to describe the scenarios where these things might happen. He then shifted ground and suggested that running barefoot was not good for you.

I was both a little shocked and really interested by this because he was one of the trainers whose job is to advise on exercise. He ought to know better or at least have some good reasons to back up such a statement. He didn't and so I said a little about how you absorbed the forces when you landed on your forefoot and how lots of people think it is a good way to run.

"Ah forefoot running. That's Pose running and a bit different" he said
"No, all Pose runners land on their forefoot but not all forefoot runners are Pose runners."

This is really quite interesting because it shows the power of a brand name and the way it can become fixed in the mind of someone who only has a peripherally interest in the subject. I am sure that this trainer was expert in all of the machines in the gym, weight training and general fitness regimes but probably for him running is only another form of cardio vascular exercise. If so he would not pay close attention to issues within the running community but he would be aware of things that impinged on the fitness industry , so obviously Pose has a profile and has made some impact. It is more widely known than I thought. it is amazing how things can ripple out.

Anyway we started to talk a little about running styles but that was not really the point so we reverted to the main topic of me running without shoes.

I had no problems with stopping. The man was doing his job and I had no desire to give him a hard time or mount any sort of high horse. It is one of the rules of the gym that you have to wear appropriate footwear at all times (probably to stop people exercising in boots or flip flops) and that is all there is to it.

I wonder though about the thinking behind such rules. Probably it is something along the lines of:

Trainers are designed to cushion the impact of running
Therefore they are protective
We need to do everything we can to protect our customers from injury
Therefore protective footwear must be worn.

The logic might be totally flawed but at least it is coherent in an institutional sort of way.

Luckily outdoors none of this matters and running is not about thinking in an institutional way. It is about listening to the best advice you can find, hearing from other peoples experiences and then trying things out for yourself. It is about not being proscriptive.


Anonymous said...

I really value hearing about other people's experiences - particularly your reflective and evidence-based musings.

Risk's an interesting thing, I know institutions have a responsibility to protect people, but people have a responsibility to make appropriate choices after weighing up the risks and benefits. It's slightly unrelated, but I found this article really interesting in terms of institutes' attitudes to managing risk of injury.

Highway Kind said...

What a depressing story of how institutions distort themselves out of fear of litigation. It is almost as if they want to create the world as a padded cell.

It is fascinating that the more this becomes the norm the more people seek out adevnture and extreme sports.

Highway Kind said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil said...

I've been bummed when they told me to stop, and wondered if they knew or cared if it was reasonable...

Dreamyank said...

The health and safety issue is extremely valid. My daughter was running barefoot on our treadmill and tripped up, her left big toe got caught between the belt and the side of the machine, she was thrown backwards off the treadmill, but not away as the toe was trapped and the belt still trying to go round cut further and further into her toe. The fire department and EMTs had to get her out and then she had 30 plus stitches. She was in fact extremely lucky that there was not break, and the artery didn't get cut and that the tendons seem to be working. This only happened 2 days ago so we still don't know how good a recovery she will make.

Now this incident happened in her own home on her own treadmill, so I can fully understand them wanting to protect them selves. if this is something you want to do at home fine, but also don;t forget that after that trip to the emergency room, your insurance company will be asking where this happened, and even if you don;t want to sue, they certainly will be trying to your medical expenses reimbursed anyway they can!

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't want to run barefoot on a gym treadmill (However, I'm quite fine with my own germs thank you.) I got a nasty staff infection from going barefoot in a filthy restroom as a teenager (water park, my feet were raw from the concrete)

As for the safety at home.. Do you run with shoes with laces? Do you use the safety lanyard? Rotating machinery has all sorts of hazards. Most of us take reasonable precautions and then just take our chances.