Born to Run – Counterview and Middle Ground

“There are very few things that are known with absolute certainty, and when you’re dealing with incredibly complex human physiology, the individual differences that make us who we are, what we’re good at, how we run and what we eat, for example, are so vast and complex that nothing can be polarized without being wrong!”

– Prof. Ross Tucker

The arrival of ‘Born to Run’ was a seminal moment – back then, if not later – simply because it questioned the status quo. For any runner, shoes (and socks) form the major part of their expenditure, or investment, in their pursuit of running. Here was Chris suggesting that we are better off in not making that expenditure. With the footwear companies already engaging in a ‘war’ with each other on different fronts through their marketing departments, ‘barefoot running’ looked like a refreshing new entrant in the war. It was a classic underdog against the top dogs, rather ‘Shoe Dogs’. To extrapolate, a public voluntary movement against corporate behemoths – Who doesn’t like such a story!

In the course of time, the barefoot running movement became a kind of religious movement and it wasn’t surprising when some of my friends added the prefix ‘Barefoot’ to their names. Such passionate debates inevitably invokes strong opinions filled with emotions, leading to polarisation of thought process. The shoe industry was accused of being unethical in their research and insincere in their marketing efforts. While Chris presented substantiative research to support his case, nothing can be ever definitive when it comes to human physiology. .

The Vibram case

A major jolt to the barefoot movement happened in 2012, when a runner filed a class action suit against Vibram USA, maker of the famous FiveFingers running shoes. The runner claimed that Vibram USA,

deceived consumers by advertising that the footwear could reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles, without basing those assertions on any scientific merit.”

It was reported that Vibram USA had agreed to settle her claims, following which over 150,000 claims were filed till November 2014. The case was pending final court approval back then and nothing has been heard since. In the process, Vibram also took back their claim that Five Fingers shoe “is effective in strengthening muscles or reducing injury in its marketing and advertising campaigns” till they discover any scientific evidence for the same. The heated debates across various running forums and magazines took a breather and the arguments ended inconclusive.

While it didn’t disprove Chris’ hypothesis that shoes cause injuries, it was now agreed that barefoot running can also cause injuries.

The Need to Learn

Following the case and complaints, the two of the major manufacturers of ‘barefoot footwear’ – Vibrams and Vivo Barefoot – started ‘educating’ customers on how to transition to barefoot running.

Although, we are naturally born to run, we don’t run all our lives. Most recreational runners start running much later in their life or after a long hiatus, during which their body would have undergone significant changes. Such changes cannot be undone overnight. Hence, barefoot running can no longer be considered as a natural way of running for most adults.

New World Records

The third hypothesis of Chris that runners can run longer or faster without shoes could never be proved. What happened over the past decade were actually contrary to his claims. World’s best timings in marathon and half-marathon have been repeatedly broken by runners wearing shoes. More recently, Nike’s introduction of Vaporfly shoes was used by Eluid Kipchoge to break the 2-hour mark in the marathon; and subsequently set best timings in marathon and half-marathon. The soles of these shoes thickness measured a whooping 4 cm! In Ultra marathons, Hoka Shoes, also with thicker soles, became popular. 

Balanced Views

Around this time, Prof. Ross Tucker, a renowned sports scientist, published series of articles on barefoot running. He approached the subject in a more objective manner without being dragged into either of the camps. In summary,

1. Barefoot running is a skill by itself and like any other skill, the adaptation to the skill differs from person to person. 

2. Barefoot running can help all runners, if undertaken separately as a fitness routine, for it activates muscles and tendons that doesn’t function when we run in shoes. 

3. There is no conclusive evidence to either prove or disprove the benefits of running barefoot, including injury free running. If runners continue running with their heel striking first, the damage caused by barefoot running is more than the damage caused by running in shoes. 

4. It may not help high performance runners – runners with targets to clock high mileage or faster times. Such runners, when they attempt to do something beyond their physical abilities, need assistance from shoes.

The Middle Ground

The setbacks certainly halted the ‘barefoot movement’ but did didn’t end it entirely. In 2013, Scott Douglas, who wrote the ‘Runner’s World Complete Guide to Minimalism and Barefoot Running’ credited the movement for driving the message of ‘shoes serving the runner, rather than the other way around.’ In the article, ‘Minimalism in The Long Run’, he explains on how the barefoot movement paved way for a middle ground in minimalistic footwear. Every shoe manufacturer started introducing minimalist version of running shoes, incorporating features like reduced thickness in soles, and a more ‘flatter shoes’ with lower heel-to-toe drop. The desirable features of ‘barefoot running’ like zero heel-to-toe drop, lighter shoes, avoiding motion control in soles were incorporated in the newer versions of the shoes. To position themselves better, they also added the thin layer of cushion that runners desired and was missing in the barefoot shoes. 

Chris also seems to have settled down on the debate. He now focuses on ‘running gently’ rather than barefoot running as his website currently states,

“the debate isn’t about Bare Soles vs. Shoes. It’s about learning to run gently. Master that, and you can wear — or not wear — anything you please”

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