Give the rise and fall of the idea in a short span of time, it is difficult to predict a future for running barefoot or in minimalist footwear. Then,barefoot running was never a discovery and certainly not an innovation. It was happening always and it would continue to happen. However, the question is more about its relevance. While barefoot running may not be a fad anymore, there are still some reasons on why runners will and should consider running barefoot.
Increasing cost of shoes
Top among them is the increasing cost of shoes. Today, an average running shoe costs in the region of Rs. 10,000 (~US$120) and lasts no more than 500-800 Kilometres. Vishwanathan Jayaraman, a barefoot runner since 2012, said in an interview,
“The biggest cost for a runner is his shoes. I actually calculated, it works up to around ₹10/ km — more expensive than taking a cab.”
When a friend of mine questioned a shoe salesman about the expensive prices, he replied, “You are paying for the technology.” Then, running is a simple sport and the beauty of it is in the simplicity of it. Does it need such technology that creates inequality?. While minimalist footwear don’t come cheap either, they are certainly bound to last longer than the conventional shoes. You can wear it till the soles get worn out completely and possibly, even after that. Also, there is very little talk of “technology” giving rise to new versions and additional costs.
The other dimension to the cost factor is the rising inequality among shoes. Recent innovation by Nike has resulted in break-through performances in long distance running with most of the world records shattered. While most of the shoe makers will catch up with Nike, it still leaves a large section of runners behind. These shoes cost a lot more than other shoes (with possibly less life) and makes running an expensive sport. Prof. Ross Tucker has written extensively on this topic and the ethical implications for allowing such footwear.
While the issue affects the professional athletes more than amateurs, it is bound to have some trickling down effect like the costs spread across all the varieties of shoes and increase in their prices.
Impact on Environment
The impact of shoes on environment will certainly make a compelling argument to avoid it. In her book, Foot Work: What Your Shoes Are Doing to the World, Tancy E Hoskins provided some alarming details about the environmental impact of shoes.
Most branded footwear recommends change of shoes as over-using the shoes leads to injuries. Hence, discarded running shoes have very little purpose outside running.
The final and the most compelling, yet not quantifiable, reason to go barefoot is the sheer simplicity of it. People love running because it is a simple activity to pursue and everyone runs to their ability. Running barefoot appeals when looked from that point of view. For frequent travellers, it is a pair of shoes less in their luggage. Innovations in shoes may not appeal beyond certain level. It will start make people question about the complexity of running shoes and the need to pay for them.
While barefoot running may not become a fad again, it is certainly going to be in vogue regardless of the innovations in shoes.
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.
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”
A question that led Christopher McDougall to a life changing exploration that was later documented in the all-time classic book ‘Born to Run’. A foreign correspondent by training, Chris covered wars in Rwanda and Angola, and was also an amateur or recreational runner. When his foot hurt, he was either advised to stop running or take painkillers. Not satisfied with the rudimentary responses, Chris tried to get to the depth of the problem. When he viewed his personal problem as a crisis for the society, it led him to discover the complex world of human physiology behind the simple act of running.
Reading the book resembles a typical long run – No body knows what they are getting into, taking one step at a time, experiencing moments of pleasure and confusion, and finally, a finish that is relished later than when it happens. The book starts like a travelogue, where Chris takes the reader to the Copper Canyons of Mexico, the drug cartels, and his discovery of the Tarahumaras. His meeting with Caballo Blanco in Mexico prompts him to chronicle the history of Ultra Running in USA – the weird and crazy ultra marathons, participation of Tarahumaras in these marathons, the troubles with sponsorship and some excellent biographical sketches of runners. In the process, he analyses the impact of shoe industry in long distance running and the innovations to these shoes over the last few decades. It is here, he delves into the art of barefoot running and tries to understand it through scientific research on human physiology. The final part of the book is an absorbing report on ‘the greatest race the world has never seen’. It is difficult to classify the book as a serious read or a casual read – and still lovely read either way. The reason, the book is still relevant, a decade after first edition, is because Chris attempts to shift the way we think about the importance of running shoes. The enduring legacy of the book has been the debate it triggered between running with shoes and running barefoot.
Barefoot running does not require anyone to discover it, as by default, everyone started running before learning to put on shoes. Human beings have been running for time immemorial and footwear, especially running shoes, came much later. Even as recent as 1960 Olympics, the winner of the marathon event, Abebe Bikila, ran barefoot (He later won the 1964 Olympics wearing shoes).
The growth of shoe industry coincided with the growth in recreational running as well as growth in consumerism in the 1960s and 1970s. Due to various reasons, including aggressive marketing campaigns, shoes soon became an integral part of long distance running.
Chris found this development troublesome and he presents the alternative – Barefoot running. He presents passionate arguments for barefoot running through a mix of personal anecdotes of many runners and scientific research. While he brings in a certain degree of dogmatism to his conclusion, the views, insights, and research work by various people adds credibility to the book.
He looks up to Dr. Joe Vigil, holder of two masters degree and a PhD, a renowned coach at various levels including the US Olympic team and a critic of the impact of shoe industry on running. Dr. Vigil is a purist in his thoughts and he believes that running has to be aligned with nature. He feels that the American approach to running in the recent years have become too artificial.
While not a direct proponent of barefoot running, Dr. Vigil was keen on finding one Natural Born Runner – ‘someone who ran for sheer joy, like an artist in the grip of inspiration- and steady how he or she trained, lived, and thought.’
Also featured in the book is Dr. Daniel Liberman, Professor of Evolutionary biology at Harvard University and an author of many popular science books like Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health. His extensive research on the biomechanics of endurance running can be found on his website, an encyclopedia for anyone who wish to understand the subject scientifically.
Dr. Liberman is a passionate advocate of running as a life style. Regarding injuries, he believes
“A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-folded shoes, had strong feet and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.”
His research convinces him that humans were designed for running without shoes and it is natural instinct for everyone to be able to run without shoes.
Apart from the views of experts, it is the stories of runners who run barefoot that makes the book an absorbing read. He starts with the Tarahumara runners, whom he romanticises – from their running to their quality lifestyle. Then, there is the fascinating story of Caballo Blanco, an American who settled in the Coupon Canyons to live and run with the Tarahumaras. Other runners include ‘Barefoot’ Ted, who went on to make one of the successful minimalistic footwear.
In the two years following the release of the book, the frenzies over barefoot running reached its zenith. In 2011, Chris claimed that the ‘bare-foot’ styled shoes (I use one of them) was a $1.7 billion industry in his article for the New York Times titled ‘The Once and Future Way to Run” attracted attention from even those who have never run.
In summary, Chris presents three key hypothesis:
We are born to run, and our legs are designed to run. Hence, we don’t need external support in form of shoes.
Shoes, especially the badly fitted ones, are the major cause of injuries.
Runners can run faster and longer without shoes than with shoes.
Reviewing it ten years after it was first published can mask many of the euphoria or the excitement that the book brought during the initial days. It was certainly the start of what I would call as the ‘Barefoot Running’ movement. While the subsequent events took some sheen out of the arguments presented by Chris, his basic premise is still relevant and valid. One can agree or disagree with the contents of the book, but cannot avoid the book in entirety.
I surely know the hundred petals of a lotus will not remain closed for ever and the secret recess of its honey will be bared.
Running is a simple sport; But the choice of a good running shoe isn’t. The choice of appropriate running shoes is a hot topic of discussion, both on the run as well as off the run in various Internet discussion forums, blog posts, articles from running magazines, and others. There are plenty of published peer- reviewed research work too. The conclusion, in most instances, have been not to conclude the discussion, and let each runner to find a solution for themselves. To add to the complexity, discussions on ‘to bare or not to bare your feet’ brought in some old perspectives in modern style. I would call it the arrival of ‘new caste’ in the religion of running’ – they are the “Barefoot Runners” – those who shun their shoes entirely or opt for one of those minimalist shoes. A famous Indian model who once controversially posed only with shoes started running barefoot (thankfully with other parts of the body covered though) and soon, many onlookers got attracted. Barefoot running sounded a bit exciting, and I too got curious to experiment with the minimalist shoes. In June 2011, my sister brought me one of those minimalist shoes (she has subsequently gifted me three more pairs of the same!). My initial attempts in running in those shoes were exciting as well as painful. While the short runs gave excitement, the longer ones were painful. I continued with my old shoes for the Hyderabad Marathon in August 2011 and Colombo marathon in October 2011. In November 2011, Christopher McDougall, author of the book ‘Born to Run,’ wrote an excellent piece for The New York Times entitled ‘The Once and Future Way to Run.’ I strongly recommend his TEDx talk.
The article narrated the experiences of people running in the minimalist shoes. He also explains through wonderful illustrations on how to run barefeet and the importance of front-foot landing. It increased my confidence in taking up ‘barefoot running’ to longer distances. I ran with the minimalist shoes for a distance of half-marathon and couple of 30K runs during my preparation for the 2nd edition of Shahid Ultra, held in December 2011. I could find some encouraging benefits – it weighed lighter, the recovery was better, and I could maintain a steady rhythm. However, the pain in the calf-muscle was still unbearable. Also, I wasn’t sure if I can hold the pain for distances upto 50K.
The 2nd edition of Shahid Ultra was held on 11th December 2011 and this time around, Shahid ensured that the distance was definitely a 50K. The weather was bad and the humidity levels sapped out the energy. A horrific accident on the ECR involving motor-bikers with scenes of blood and flesh on the road added to the nausea. At the 5-hour mark, I wanted to quit my run. Shahid encouraged and pushed me to finish the 42.195K, which we completed in 5 hours 30 minutes. We then decided that we will hold on for another 30 minutes, and with further encouragement from Shankar Lal (it was actually a misguidance), I managed to finish the run in 6 hours 40 minutes.
With minimalist shoes, the pain in the calf-muscles sets in early. It normally sustains over the distance and is usually bearable till a certain distance (which varies from runners). In case of conventional shoes, one always has an option to start landing on their heels. Minimalist shoes makes that difficult and the walk breaks are equally painful. Running beyond that threshold limit becomes challenging. On that day, 35K was the limit and every Kilometer beyond that was a huge challenge. In addition, poor sizing issues turned my toe nail black. At the end of the event, I had a chat with Ram, who also used the minimalist shoes for running the 50K. He agreed with me that it wasn’t comfortable beyond a certain distance. He kept his options open for the Comrades, even as late as ten days before the event. He finally ran in the minimalist shoes and resolved not to run with them again.
I went back to my shoes to run the Mumbai Marathon in January 2012. The marathon was not run in my usual pace as I chose to accompany my friend Janardhanan is his attempt to complete the marathon. The Shahid Ultra experience was soon banished and returned back to the minimalist shoes to run the Cool Runners Half-marathon on January 26, 2012. A nice weather and a great company for running, I managed to finish the half-marathon for an impressive timing of about 1:53:00 (purist GPS-enabled runners still dispute the distance though).
In February 2012, Ted McDonald or ‘Barefoot Ted’ as he calls himself visited India and participated in the Auroville Marathon 2012. He was one of the runners featured by Christopher McDougall in his book ‘Born to Run.’ Barefoot Ted also promotes his line of minimalist footwear which are extremely popular. His talk on the eve of the marathon on barefoot running was very impressive. Speaking to him gave me some assurance that I am not likely to be doing anything significantly wrong by running in these minimalist shoes.
It was February already, and changing back to shoes looked like yet another challenge. I ended up running my Comrades in the minimalist shoes and found some people giving strange looks at the start point. I found that only I and Ram were running the Comrades in minimalist shoes. In hindsight, it did prove to be a bad idea. While the uphill runs were enjoyable, It did not support us on the down-hill runs, where cushioned shoes would have provided the much wanted comfort. Nevertheless, I find running with minimalist shoes more enjoyable and continue to run with the same.
The debate is still on with some recent research showing that it causes damage to the bones. A recent article in NY Times focuses on the injuries caused by Barefoot running and Chris McDougall has devoted a separate section in his website for debate. The conclusion is rather obvious – each runner knows what is best for them!