Is Barefoot Running Better for You?

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barefoot runningIs Barefoot Running Better for You?

Barefoot running and running with minimalist shoes is the subject of heated controversy in the running world at present. Runners seem to be either strongly for or strongly against barefoot running. What is the real truth about barefoot running?

Born to Run

At the heart of the barefoot running controversy lies the bestseller “Born to Run”. This book, published in March 2011, is described by Amazon as follows:

Isolated by Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons, the blissful Tarahumara Indians have honed the ability to run hundreds of miles without rest or injury. In a riveting narrative, award-winning journalist and often-injured runner Christopher McDougall sets out to discover their secrets. In the process, he takes his readers from science labs at Harvard to the sun-baked valleys and freezing peaks across North America, where ever-growing numbers of ultra-runners are pushing their bodies to the limit, and, finally, to a climactic race in the Copper Canyons that pits America’s best ultra-runners against the tribe. McDougall’s incredible story will not only engage your mind but inspire your body when you realize that you, indeed all of us, were born to run.

It sounds like a great story, but is barefoot running right for you?  Before I go further, let me admit that I have not read the book, but I understand that when interviewed about it the author, Chris MacDougall, stated:

We treat running in the modern world the same way we treat childbirth—it’s going to hurt, and requires special exercises and equipment, and the best you can hope for is to get it over with quickly and with minimal damage.

I have yet to meet a runner who feels that way about running!

Minimalist Shoesminimalist shoes

Unfortunately, hype like this surrounds the whole issue of barefoot running, and the shoe manufacturers have been quick to catch on to the possibilities – hence minimalist shoes. Think about it: if you manufactured running shoes and every runner decided to run barefoot, what would happen to your business? If, however, you design a minimalist shoe, you can cash in on the barefoot running craze by convincing runners that these shoes meet their needs and are safer than running barefoot.

It’s interesting to see how the different manufacturers of running shoes have responded to the barefoot running fashion. Probably best known is the Nike Free shoe line, but Nike seems to have backed off that idea with their current shoes. If you look at the Runner’s World Shoe Guide in the March 2012 edition (one year after Born to Run was published) you’ll see only two new minimal shoes with no cushioning: the New Balance Minimus Zero and the Merrell Road Glove. Altra‘s The Instinct/The Intuition comes next with at least some cushioning.

Minimalist Shoes – How Long Do They Last?

Runner’s World has an answer to the question of how long minimalist shoes last.

Answer: about half as long as regular running shoes. This makes sense when you recognize that there is about half the amount of material in them. With most minimalist shoes, there is less foam underfoot and the outsole rubber is injected with air to lighten it. An exception is the Vibram FiveFingers, which has an extremely tough outsole and no cushioning to wear out. In shoes like these, according to Runner’s World, the upper wears out before the soles.

Are Minimalist Shoes Better for You?

So what is the answer? Like any new idea in sport, time will tell whether barefoot running (or running in minimalist shoes) is really better for you than using conventional running shoes. Most likely, the barefoot running concept will lead to lighter, more flexible shoes that will be a compromise between the hard-core minimalist shoes and the regular shoes of today, but, like now, each runner will still choose the shoe that works best for him or her.

barefoot runningTrying Barefoot Running

The best advice I can offer is that if you are going to change over to barefoot running, treat it like any other change in your running regimen. Do it slowly, a little bit at a time, and be prepared to go back to your normal running shoes at the first sign of injury. And please don’t be taken in by the hype and pseudo-science that is written about barefoot running being for everyone – it’s just not true.

Finally, I must make the usual disclaimer that I am not medically qualified to give advice like this, so you need to take it all with a grain of salt and ask your doctor what he thinks about barefoot running!

Death in Chicago

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Chicago marathon

A 22-year old runner died in the Chicago Half Marathon yesterday, probably a victim of the record high temperature. When I ran the Nashville Half Marathon in 2009, also in record high temperature, we had a similar experience: another young runner died. Why does this happen?

I found myself asking this question as I went for my morning run today. With 101 degrees forecast, we are under a weather advisory, with the National Weather Service advising us to “reschedule strenuous activities to the early morning or mid- to late-evening hours.” I intended to take a long run this morning, but decided to cut it short when I realized how hot I was getting.

As runners, we are always tempted to push past our limits: it’s in our nature to see how much harder or faster we can run. With experience, though, we learn that sometimes pushing too hard can be dangerous: we want to live to run another day! It’s generally the younger, less experienced runners that succumb to the heat.

Nashville Half Finish

The lesson? Know when to quit! During the 2009 Nashville Half Marathon, I recognized that I was becoming dehydrated and overheated, with a section that had a paucity of water stations. I didn’t drop out, but I decided it was safer to quit running and walk until I could obtain some relief. No, I didn’t beat my anticipated time, but I finished strong and healthy, and was able to run again in 2010.

It’s fun to break your personal record, but not if you lose your life in the attempt.