Monday, February 1, 2010

Our un-injured ancestors and barefoot running

I can't say that I've drunk the koolaid on the whole barefoot running craze.  Yes, I see that there would be some benefit to adopting it in small quantities to work on form, and strengthen the feet and ankles, but I have no plans to throw out my running shoes anytime soon.  One argument that I just don't get to support running barefoot is that it's the best choice because our ancestors did it.  Do we actually have data from our ancestors that show that they didn't suffer from achilles tendonitis, IT band syndrome, stress fractures or other common running injuries?  There are a lot of things about how our ancestors lived that don't parallel life today, and I'd have to say that in many ways we are better off today (or have the option to be better off depending upon our life style).  What was the life expectancy back then anyhow?   How do we know that our ancestors weren't plagued by common and frequent running types of injuries?  After all, those of us that have suffered from injuries, know that many of them aren't life-ending or even activity-limiting, so the fact that they endured doesn't meant that they weren't injured.  People win races while injured, and our ancestors could have survived evolutionarily while injured, as well. 

Yes, I'm currently injured.  Is it because of shoes?  Not in my opinion.  I've been running for 25 years, and have had 2 side-lining injuries, one about 7 years into running, and the other another 17 years later.  I'd just call it part of the deal, especially when you're trying to run higher mileage consistently.  And I'm not blaming it on the fact that I wear shoes.  Like a lot of injuries, in my case, something got tweaked, and I ignored it and continued to tweak it--I didn't listen to my body when I should have and had a few races in the way.  So I continued to tweak it, and tweak it.  In my case, I think it had more to do with terrain than anything else.  I was in El Salvador for 5 months for work and ran a lot, but didn't have the opportunity to run on trails.  Upon returning, I jumped into many trail events quickly, and the quick transition from smooth road back to rocky trail was more than my road-weakened ankles could handle. It's kind of a no-brainer that one shouldn't train for MMT-type trails on roads.  Would my ankles have been stronger had I been running barefoot?  Well, maybe, but they also would have been stronger had I eased back into trail running.  And running in the dark in San Salvador barefoot could have led to far worse injuries. 

I'll be anxious to see the data in a few years from outspoken barefoot runners who think it's the only way.  In 25 years, can they claim 0 injuries?  I'm doubtful.  While being injured sucks, I happen to think it's a part of the game.  And in some ways, it's good for us.  In my case, it's widened my cross-training repertoire and I've discovered that I love some other activities, too, which I can make more time for when I can't run, like road biking, bikram yoga, swimming and snowshoeing.  Being injured has also lit a fire in terms of desire to be on the trails again.  It wasn't out, but the flame was flickering a bit low this fall.  I can't wait to be back out there running long distances.  In shoes.


Casseday said...

I agree Amy, being injured is just unfortunately part of the game for those of us that consistently push our limits year in and year out.
I'm just drinking the coffee, not the koolaid.
-- Adam

Jason Robillard said...


First the disclose- I'm a barefoot ultrarunner. I agree, though. I don't like that some (and I emphasize some) barefoot runners will use the "our ancestors did it" angle to support barefoot running. I think this is an expansion of the logic that the lower extremities appear to function better using a footstrike under the center of gravity versus an "overstride." We have data that can support the anatomy argument, but the "ancestor" argument is pointless.

Any well-read barefoot runner will acknowledge two things: barefoot running is not a cure-all; and barefoot running is not the only "right" answer. For some, they will see a significant reduction in ijury (though this is only supported with anecdotal evidence right now.) For others, barefoot running will not result in any improvement. As far as my second point- there are possibly millions of runners that have no incidence of injuries while running in shoes. For those runners, there's no need to try barefoot running unless doing so for the fun factor (in my opinion it is a blast!) Unfortunately, I fear its new-found high profile will draw many to try it that really shouldn't.

At any rate, good post. Keep up the great writing!

-Jason Robillard

Bobby Gill said...

Good post, Amy. And if anyone can commiserate with you about injuries, it's me!

I'll say that I have drank some of the koolaid starting early last year, but I have done my reading and my experimenting and I have come to the conclusion that it is not an end-all-be-all solution. However, it can be a quite effective tool in a runner's training toolbox. There is no doubt that all runners could benefit from strengthened ankles, arches, and an efficient mid/forefoot stride. The issue then becomes making sure people don't do too much barefooting too soon should they decide to go this route, but like you pointed out there are those who drink the koolaid and throw out shoes, thus overwhelming their muscles and leading to a whole new array of overuse injuries.

I'm sure you saw the Harvard research that's been making headlines recently showing the decreased impact forces of barefoot running, but it should be noted that they didn't study injury rates.

I personally try to do 1 shorter barefoot run a week (on trails, pavement sucks) and let the calves recover the following day. I also have transitioned to minimalist shoes for everyday use to strengthen the feet, but that's not running.

In the end, to each their own. There and pros and cons, and like everything else moderation is key. Hope you're back to 100% soon and I can't wait to come visit (whenever that may be).

Long live WUS!


saschasdad said...

Great, great post, Amy (yes, you got 2 "greats"). Well thought out. I actually brought up your point of "how do we know our ancestors didn't get injured running barefoot" in a recent discussion. No response.

I like Jason and Bobby's comments. They both very thoughtfully and intelligently explained their point of view, and that, no, barefooting isn't for everyone.

I'm intrigued by the fun factor. I've only done it on the beach and it definitely is fun!

ultrarunnergirl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ultrarunnergirl said...

Good points Amy.
There's been reports of VFF converts getting injured running on pavement (I know someone personally who got a stress fracture exactly that way). There was no pavement back in our ancestors' days!
I think the barefoot philosophy has many valid points that can benefit our running as long as we incorporate those points wisely and remain cognizant of the limitations.
I started running in the New Balance WT100s and LOVE the change in my form and the lightness.

Unknown said...

Barefoot running can potentiate knee pain related to IT Band Friction Syndrome. If you are experiencing this and want to keep barefoot running like Amy, and keep 'un-injured like our ancestors,' (if this is the angle you want to take;) you should
definitely check out the website:

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