Barefoot Running: Current state of the play

I previously wrote about the lack of evidence that supports barefoot running despite all the claims you still see appearing in the crankosphere blogosphere that there is a lot of scientific research that supports barefoot running (there isn’t). It is that lack of evidence in the context of all the claims that there is evidence that landed Vibram FiveFingers in hot water with the class action. There is also a declining interest from runners in barefoot/minimalist running. To add to all the evidence that has accumulated about barefoot running and related topics, we now have this review of that evidence from the British Journal of Sports Medicine:

Barefoot running: an evaluation of current hypothesis, future research and clinical applications
Nicholas Tam, Janie L Astephen Wilson, Timothy D Noakes, Ross Tucker
Br J Sports Med doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-092404
Barefoot running has become a popular research topic, driven by the increasing prescription of barefoot runing as a means of reducing injury risk. Proponents of barefoot running cite evolutionary theories that long-distance running ability was crucial for human survival, and proof of the benefits of natural running. Subsequently, runners have been advised to run barefoot as a treatment mode for injuries, strength and conditioning. The body of literature examining the mechanical, structural, clinical and performance implications of barefoot running is still in its infancy. Recent research has found significant differences associated with barefoot running relative to shod running, and these differences have been associated with factors that are thought to contribute to injury and performance. Crucially, long-term prospective studies have yet to be conducted and the link between barefoot running and injury or performance remains tenuous and speculative. The injury prevention potential of barefoot running is further complicated by the complexity of injury aetiology, with no single factor having been identified as causative for the most common running injuries. The aim of the present review was to critically evaluate the theory and evidence for barefoot running, drawing on both collected evidence as well as literature that have been used to argue in favour of barefoot running. We describe the factors driving the prescription of barefoot running, examine which of these factors may have merit, what the collected evidence suggests about the suitability of barefoot running for its purported uses and describe the necessary future research to confirm or refute the barefoot running hypotheses.

I would urge all those with access to the BJSM to read it as it does give a good review of the current state of scientific knowledge on barefoot running. As its not a research paper, there is not a lot to comment on from me. The only comment I will make, is that there has obviously been more research on the topic published since these authors would have submitted their review for publication. If they were to include them, it would have only strengthened the conclusion that they made. As for the conclusion, they were quite emphatic, concluding:

We have described the rationale, the biomechanical justification and two of the crucial unknown aspects of barefoot runing. It is clear that little is known about barefoot running and injury and performance. The current promotion of barefoot running is based on oversimplified, poorly understood, equivocal and in some cases, absent research, but remains a trend in popular media based solely on an evolutionary/epidemiological hypothesis and anecdotal evidence. Here, we have described that while the evolutionary hypothesis may be credible, it assumes a great deal and cannot by itself be the justification for barefoot running. In terms of biomechanics, it is clear from current evidence that barefoot running influences the body acutely, and likely has a significant impact on kinetic and kinematic factors associated with injury. However, no causal relationships, and the high variability and complexity of both injury and barefoot running make this justification tenuous.

Finally, we suggest that barefoot running may be a skill that is not instinctively acquired, but that requires substantial practice in order for the body to adapt. Even then, it is unclear how this adaptation may occur, and whether every runner can achieve it. The process of adaptation needs to be clearly understood before training and clinical advice is disseminated to athletes.

In conclusion, there remain more questions than answers at present. Future research may elucidate some of these answers, but current advice, based on tenuous justifications and associations between biomechanical factors and injury do not by themselves constitute a compelling argument for barefoot running. It may be that the running technique is more important, and so further research must distinguish between barefoot running and characteristics of barefoot running that may be implementable for shod running.

Yet another review concludes the same as all the other reviews. What I don’t understand is why in the crankosphere blogosphere they still keep talking about all the scientific evidence that supports barefoot running, but the reviews of the scientific literature all reach the conclusion that there is not the evidence … go figure!

As always, I go where the evidence takes me until convinced otherwise, and my understanding of the body of literature that underpins barefoot running means I concur with the conclusions that these authors made. Why is it that the barefoot evangelists see so much evidence and the rest of the world don’t see that?

POSTSCRIPT: Aonther review published: Evidence that barefoot running is better? …. part deux

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11 Responses to Barefoot Running: Current state of the play

  1. Adolfo Neto October 16, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    “Why is it that the barefoot evangelists see so much evidence and the rest of the world don’t see that?”

    Who are those “barefoot evangelists” that “see so much evidence”???

    Daniel Lieberman is not one of them.
    Nor Christopher “Born to Run” McDougall.
    Nor Steven “Xero Shoes” Sashen.
    Nor Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton.

    Ken Bob is the only one of the above that suggests that everyone can run in bare feet. But, as far as I know, not based on evidence. Nor even on evolution. He recommends barefoot running based on fun.

    All the others I know either suggest a “barefoot running style” (i.e. wearing some kind of shoes in some cases) or suggest that barefoot running is not for all.

    • Craig Payne October 16, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

      Nope. Pretty much all of them, esp McDougal, claim that there is a lot of evidence that supports barefoot running. Why do they do that when every single one of the reviews of the scientific evidence conclude that there is NO evidence?

      Have you read Born to Run? Did you read in there all the evidence that McDougal claims supports what he is saying supports his stance? None of what he claims supports what he is saying – it was one of the worst misunderstanding, misusing, misinterpretation and misquoting of the research that you will come across.

      Have you read Dan Liebermans latest book on the Story of the Human Body (overall its actually a really good book), but on the barefoot section be makes a really bad case of cherry picking the evidence quoting references that support his argument, but conveniently leaves out all the references that support the opposite.

      What about the artilce on the Barefoot University website that lists all the evidence that supposed to support barefoot running – not one of the studies they listed supports barefoot running!

      What about all the fan boys who claimed that the class action against Vibrams would be easily dismissed because of all the scientific evidence that supports barefoot running….well when that “evidence” was presented to the judge, he did not see it that way.

      etc

      etc

      etc

      I wish someone could explain why these people see all this evidence, but no one else does?

  2. FernandoL. October 21, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    There is no scientific evidence of barefoot running as a way to reduce injuries. For some people, conclusions that running the same way our ancestors did was a better way came to soom and too easily. There is no evidence either that modern running shoes avoid injuries or reduce them, as far as I know (and in the blogsphere there is also a strong belief that they do, probably bigger that the barefoot faith). Trouble is that there is a lot to research about.
    What might runners have learned about this controversy? Al least there has been a lot more focus on running technique from everyone, and I belive there are some ideas that have been floating in the air this years that can be useful: avoid overstride (scientific evidence about this? Any loading rate study that have come to any conclusion here), try to land smoothly, not lean your back too forward etc.

  3. Lindsay November 14, 2013 at 8:31 pm #

    People see what they agree with, and so we see this with scientific studies and anecdotes. It’s rather easy, unfortunately, to interpret data the way we’d all like, and true objectivity is quite rare. I say this as a journalist, so I understand the importance and the difficulty.

    In all these voices about running shoes and form, Peter Larson of Runblogger is a great one (disclaimer, I agree with him).

    What the whole thing comes down to, in my view, is this: Do what works for you and what you enjoy. Barefoot, Nike Frees, New Balance Minimus or Hokas, it doesn’t matter.

    • Craig Payne November 14, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

      Thanks. That was my pint in a more recent post why one size does not fit all: http://www.runresearchjunkie.com/why-one-size-does-not-fit-all-when-it-comes-to-running/

      However, the fan boys still talk about all the scientific evidence that supports barefoot running when every single review of the scientific evidence published in the peer reviewed scientific literature reaches the same conclusion –> there is no evidence that it is more economical and there is no evidence you get less injuries with it.

  4. EternalFury November 14, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

    The herd behavior is not compatible with reversing decades of shod running.
    Worse, having run in shoes while your body is forming may condemn you to run that way for the rest of your life.
    While it’s fine to focus on the lack of evidence in favor of barefoot running, one should not deny the evidence that shod running did little to prevent injuries. (except maybe achilles tendinitis)

    • Craig Payne November 14, 2013 at 11:08 pm #

      The difference is, where is anyone claiming that ‘traditional’ running shoes prevent injury? – certainly not me and certainly not the running shoe companies.

      All over the web, the fan boys are talking about all the scientific evidence that supports barefoot running. Why do they do that when every single review in the scientific literature by a lot of different people from many different backgrounds all reach the same conclusion that there is NO evidence that its any better. The only running shoe companies making “health” claims for their product is the minimalist running shoe manufacturers…. which is exactly what got Vibrams in hot water with the class action they are facing.

      I have not seen anyone making the same claims for “traditional” running shoes. If they are, can you please point them out.

      • Dawsy January 5, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

        “I have not seen anyone making the same claims for “traditional” running shoes. If they are, can you please point them out.”

        It took about 2 seconds to find an example of this on the Nike site:

        “Overpronation can lead to injuries or other issues. Overponation happens when feet roll inward too much and cause the rest of the body to compensate. Runners who overpronate usually have a flat or weak arch that allows this motion to occur.

        To combat the issue of overpronation, Nike offers motion control footwear that provides excellent cushioning and stability. Shoes in the Stability category on Nike.com can help with overpronation.”

        source: http://help-en-us.nike.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/879/p/3568

        I think that a lot of people forget that the barefoot running craze sprung up as a result of a real, or at least perceived, epidemic of injuries among runners. Faced with what appears to be a certainty of injury, it’s natural that they’d be willing to try out other things in hopes that they might improve the situation.

        Personally I don’t see very much evidence one way or the other to support shod or barefoot running as a way of reducing injuries. I have yet to see a single viable study come out about either that wasn’t inherently flawed, by either oversimplified assumptions, tiny sample sizes, or lack of peer review.

        I agree that there have been many outrageous claims made by some barefoot proponents, and that cherry-picking is rampant, but pretending that the shoe companies are not doing the same is ridiculous.

        Honestly, I very much doubt that there will ever be a conclusive study that shows that one or the other method is right for everybody. Ultimately, if you enjoy running in shoes, then go for it, you may or may not get injured. If you like running without, then go for it as well, with the same warning.

        We need to get over this idea that there’s some magic bullet that can be read on a blog or bought in a shoe store that will somehow fix everything. An stop looking down our noses at people who are making choices that differ from our own. (hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

  5. Mark Richard January 7, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Having worked in Running shops for many years I have received Tech training off all the brands reps in the benefits of their shoes.

  6. Mark Richard January 7, 2014 at 9:26 am #

    In fairness Craig to my mind has never claimed there are benefits to traditional shoes

  7. Mark Richard January 7, 2014 at 7:30 pm #

    “Is any running shoe company prepared to claim that wearing their distance running shoes will decrease your risk of suffering musculoskeletal running injuries?
    Is any shoe manufacturer prepared to claim that wearing their running shoes will improve your distance running performance?
    If you are prepared to make these claims, where is your peer reviewed data to back it up?”
    – Dr. Craig Richards
    University of Newcastls, Australia

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