I think about barefoot running a lot and yet I think about it hardly at all. This might seem a paradox (or just plain incoherence), but it isn’t. Really it isn’t.
When out running it is an irrelevance. I wear cushioned shoes1 and have no issues with them. My mind is elsewhere. If I have to think about my feet I know a nerve is signalling me that something is wrong - and I don’t want that. Most of the time that doesn’t happen, and my mind can ramble and jump around without constraint. I have no great desire to concentrate over hard on the mechanics of what I'm doing and certainly don’t want to be the centipede who is immobilised because he can’t remember which leg moves next. However, when reading or thinking about running in the abstract, I am fascinated by the subject. It raises questions about whether there is or is not a correct way to run or whether the physiology of each individual dictates their form. It is also an interesting example of how ideas grow from being the preoccupation of a few to gaining wider acceptance and how a minority with strong convictions can appear to dominate an argument but not necessarily change behaviour (the majority of runners still have quite a lot of cushioning on their shoes). Above all though it shows how little real evidence we really have but nevertheless how many people are convinced they know they are right.
I think barefoot running became a hot topic because it entwines two strands of thought that are powerfully attractive for most runners. The first is romantic and conjures up images of distant ancestors and how they evolved over the millennia evolved and is part of a common yearning to get back to nature. The second is the claim that it lessens the risk of injury (is there a runner alive who would not want to reduce the risk of being injured again?). When these ideas are woven into a compelling narrative they are close to irresistible. This happened in Christopher McDougall’s huge best seller Born to Run, which also contained the exoticism of a remote Mexican tribe capable of amazing feats of endurance, a mysterious man of the wilds, maverick American individualist, and the suspense of a race. No wonder it captured the imagination of so many people. For normal runners though there was the story of the author himself who, within the book, represents everyman. He was a runner so injury prone he had more or less abandoned the sport but through learning to run barefoot he was able to come back, better and stronger than ever. He is a compelling example.
With the success of the book the trickle of articles about barefoot running became a strong flowing river. It is worth recalling though that before 2009 (when Born to Run was published) there had been growing interest in the potential benefits of changing running form to land on the forefoot/midfoot. Methods such as POSE or Chi Running frequently discussed on running forums and the Vibram Five Fingers had already been adopted by runners (they were originally deigned as yachting shoes), so the ground was well prepared the upsurge in interest. However the big shoe manufacturers were slow to respond. Perhaps they felt they had too much invested in the concept of protection and pronation control or that it would never be a big enough market to worry about. For whatever reason they left a gap for other companies to fill but that now seems to have changed and the traditional running brands are moving in, but some with more enthusiasm than others.
So that gives me four topics to think about when I think of barefoot running: romancing of the Palaeolithic runner; injury prevention; the response of sport shoe manufacturers; and the evangelical mindset of some proponents of barefoot running. I will write about each of them in future posts.
1 If I am going to write about barefoot running I should perhaps declare my own practice. I tend to land midfoot. It is not the result of a conscious decision - it just happened that way.I am not, however, a barefoot runner. I like some cushioning and a bit of a heel but I can't be doing with a huge, big heel as they get in the way. For me a benefit of the current trend is that there are now more shoes with less drop. I do however wear minimalist shoes, occasionally, when I am on the treadmill, doing my speed (don't laugh at the back) training.