I just came across an article promoting running shoes in the New York Times health blog. While I love reading the NYT, it amazes me how such a great newspaper can get so much wrong particularly when it relates to health. I think their columnists have to struggle with balancing their mighty corporate advertisers on one hand, and reporting true facts about health on the other. Given this tension, what comes out in the health section is often muddled, incomprehensible, and uninformative.
The article starts with this gem of a quote (you can read it in full at this link). http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/21/making-the-case-for-running-shoes/
“For the past few years, proponents of barefoot running have argued that modern athletic shoes compromise natural running form. But now a first-of-its-kind study suggests that, in the right circumstances, running shoes make running physiologically easier than going barefoot.”
Hello? What are they going on about? Who cares about physiological ease when doing exercise?
The essence of running or walking barefoot is that human feet evolved over tens of thousands of years, and our foot muscles are more than capable of handling the pressures of carrying our body around without help from shoes. In communities that have never learnt to wear shoes, people have very strong feet, and problems like bunions and flat feet and weak ankles and a host of other problems are unheard of. Of course, the negative is that you are liable to get thorns and other unsavory things stuck in your foot from time to time.
But we have to recognize that wearing shoes has a trade-off. In exchange for a more stylish, thorn-free existence, we get much weaker feet. When you put a young calf in a box, you get veal. When you put your feet in a box (shoes are a box!), you get very tender, weakened feet.
This is the reason why podiatrists are in business. This is also the reason why if you go suddenly start running barefoot or with barefoot-like shoes after a life-time of putting your feet in a box, there is a much higher risk of breaking your metatarsal bones.
The main point of the barefoot movement is to try and make sure our children spend enough time unshod to develop their foot muscles. There are no doubt activities that require shoes, but there are also activities for which shoes ought to be optional.
In the hobby of running in particular, the debate between barefoot and shod running is ongoing. For those of us who do develop proper foot muscles and ligaments and bones and who can therefore handle running barefoot, the benefits are large; proper running form, ability to continue running well into our silver years, and injury-free running.
Of course, transitioning from shoes to bare feet for adults is not simple, but must be done carefully to avoid injury. But please do not blame the barefoot movement for these injuries, instead blame western cultural norms that meant you grew up wearing shoes in the first place!
Coming back to the NYT article, it is astonishing that the whole purpose of the study was to show that running with shoes has a lower “metabolic cost” and is “physiologically easy” than running barefoot. Duh! Do we need studies to show us this? Is it even a relevant question?
Let me tell you activities that have even less metabolic cost than running with shoes. How about bicycling instead? Or driving a car? How about just sitting down on the couch and watching some TV?
Shoes proponents often argue that because elite runners who win marathons and sprints always wear shoes, that must be better than going barefoot. But what do they mean by better? I am not arguing that running with shoes is slower than running barefoot in elite sports (there is overwhelming evidence to show that it is not), but that the two sports are in different categories. Just as we don’t allow people on bicycles to compete with runners in a marathon, barefoot running and shod running should be two separate categories, because running with shoes (or on a bicycle) gives you an unfair speed advantage.
Barefoot running is worth promoting in its own right, and it should be the norm for true world records and true athletes because it is inherently more natural and good for you. Running with shoes, which is OK but not as good for you, should be a less elite category, because it is a bit like doing push-ups with your knees on the floor. You can certainly do more push-ups this way, but does that make you stronger or better?
One last point. Shoe companies are second only to makers of sugary drinks in the size of their advertising/marketing budgets. Shoe companies also have the support of podiatrists or so-called “foot doctors” who make their living treating problems caused by the shoe lobby in the first place. For this reason, it is only natural that it will take decades to change public perceptions on this issue.