I am a runner by religion, and a very staunch one at that. I became a runner when I was 9 years old. I firmly believed that running gives you an even playing ground, which strips all of their social status and financial standing. It brings to surface the true character of the individual. It’s because of that it’s given me the best of friends and introduced me to some awesome folks out there.
Running has throughout been my best friend. It never judged me, whether I ran super slow, super fast (half marathon in 1hr 18 min when I was 17) or super long (160 km). It didn’t care if I started a race but didn’t finish (Paris to London in 2004 covering 8 marathons or more in 8 consecutive days, I stopped after 5). It didn’t get excited if I came first, nor did it feel depressed when I came last. It also never judged me if I ran in my jeans, track pants or shorts, nor has it ever been bothered if I ran barefoot, in my sandals which weren’t made for running, in cheap or very expensive shoes. And I’ve done all of it. It is running that I am in love with, not the vanity around it. I’ve always done what felt right to me on a particular morning. In return, running doesn’t expect much of me, it simply wants me to move, no matter what.
Then came along a book, ‘Born to Run’, which in a very short span had a cult following. It’s written by Christopher McDougall, a master storyteller who has won a lot of journalistic awards. Basically, the dude can write, but running, how well does he actually know running? He has used his writing skills to convince all the converts who now swear by that book and him, that he is the actual son of god, oops, running. You are required to follow him and his ways, else you are headed straight to hell. But then, I love my running like hell, so I am all set. On a slightly different note, I’ve always wondered what is the cut-off percentage to make it to heaven?
In this book, he’s mostly used anecdotes and makes them sound like well researched scientific evidence. His stand reminded me of President George Bush just before going to war with Iraq on the premise of Saddam Hussein having developed WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction). Bush had threatened the world by saying, “you are either with me or against me.” There was no room for someone to think for themselves and follow a middle path. It’s been over a decade that US and allied forces have ‘occupied’ Iraq and literally turned it upside down, but no WMDs have been found yet. As a result, one of the most celebrated civilizations has been messed with, beyond recognition.
Is this great story book doing the same to running? Why do we suddenly have to chose between one of the newer religions? You are almost forced to pick between being a runner who goes barefoot, uses minimalist or conventional running shoes.
In 2009, just when barefoot and minimalist rage was picking up in the running community, I did a piece on the same, taking a very neutral stance. Footwear or bare.
On a Sunday in February 2010, after having run an amazing 30 odd km in my 5 year old leather Clarkes sandals, that are not even designed for running, I blogged about my 3.5 year old son, who at that time loved running barefoot. I wanted to see how did a kid at that age run, since he wasn’t yet corrupted by the modern sedentary lifestyle and the multi-billion dollar shoe companies. Inspite of being flat footed, I found my kid to have a very smooth natural running style, gently landing on his mid-foot first and then taking off. It highlighted to me yet again what I had always believed, that it’s not the footwear or the lack of it that matters, but how one runs. The whole argument is just going in the wrong direction.
What I meant in that brief blog post was that my three-and-a-half-year old son, who was flat footed, knew how to run. No one ever taught him that. He was born with the instinct to run. We all are, unless we are very unlucky. It’s today’s lifestyle’s interference that corrupts our body. Most of us would then become slobs, and forget to use our body the way it was designed to be. We start blaming our tools, in this case shoes, and their manufacturers when we ourselves have no clue how to run or walk any more. This gives an opportunity to the ‘gurus’ to make a killing.
Let me slow down for you. It’s your running style and body usage, rather body abuse, that’s to be blamed for your running injuries. Over the years, it leads to gross muscle imbalance and poor posture. To top it up, if you over train, that itself leads to more than 80 percent of injuries.
When your body is not yet corrupted by the environment we live in, we can push to extremes and not get hurt. As our body starts to rapidly forget what we were born with, suddenly there is a far bigger need to first address the muscle imbalances and posture before picking up running like crazy again. This helps you in making your body more aware. Suddenly picking up running is bound to cause you injuries. And it doesn’t matter whether you run in conventional shoes, minimalist shoes, or go barefoot.
The rule of thumb is to gradually work on it. It’s not going to be like good old days when you were 3 or 4 years old. You need to increase your time on feet by no more than ten percent per week. To newbies, I don’t like to talk about mileage yet, which is again a major mistake. With mileage comes speed. When you pick up running, simply time on feet, having the sense of building that confidence is good enough. In any case, we need to address one thing at a time. And never should speed be first. Only after you’ve gotten comfortable, which could even take 3-4 months, should you start talking about speed, if at all.
Then are the other extremists who will almost do anything to prove that barefoot running is bad for you. It was a study titled ‘Running in a minimalist and lightweight shoe is not the same as running barefoot: a biomechanical study’ that got me working on this piece. This article was first published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine on 11 January 2013. It is a very misleading study as the researchers didn’t pick ‘proper’ minimalist shoe.
I personally like Nike Free 3.0, the shoes used in the study as minimalist shoes, but Runner’s World, in a critical review of the paper, highlight a very valid point that “Nike Free 3.0 (the shoe used as minimalist shoe) has a 17 mm heel that provides some cushioning, and a 4 mm heel drop. In contrast, the Vibram Fivefingers, for example, has a 3.5 mm sole with zero drop.”
People use different definitions for minimalist shoes, but we need to get to more basic shoes without cushioning. The basic premise of a minimalist shoe is that you feel the ground, which definitely is not the case in Nike Free. I find it very unprofessional of the authors to say in the paper that Nike Free 3.0 qualifies as a minimalist shoe because Nike says so.
The author admits later on in the study about this flaw, but the damage has already been done. The scientist community needs to be unbiased. But this study has given enough ammunition to regular shoe companies that they have been right throughout.
Coming back to barefoot running, it definitely has thrown up a new gamut of injuries. The ones that were very rare in those runners running in conventional shoes. As I mentioned above, we all forget how to use our body as we get too involved with our modern sedentary lives. We forget how to run properly, with a good technique. In any case, there is no one right way to do it. The lucky few, who have a good running technique, really don’t have to worry about the running shoe or a lack of them. They are all good as long as a gradual smooth transition is done from the comfort of a shoe to the freedom of barefoot running. In any case, those folks are doing well, they know the drill.
For a newbie or a runner with bad running technique, I like to compare the cushioning in conventional running shoes to the bumpers of a car. It gives you that little extra room to mess up and still not do any permanent damage to the car’s body, or in this case, your body. You just might finally learn how to run. Barefoot running doesn’t offer any room for messing up. But what it definitely does is, very similar to driving a car without bumpers, it makes you go slower. Or at least, that’s what one would think is sensible.
Did I just say sensible? Runners and sensibility almost never go together. Do remember, I am one of you. They like to push it as soon as they get a little comfortable. Bad running technique coupled with barefoot running is a recipe for disaster. First and foremost, they need to work on their muscle imbalances and they need to become more body aware. It’s assumed that barefoot running would force you to land on your mid-foot or fore-foot, so there will be less strain on your body. But a few studies that looked at barefoot runners in several marathons, found that most of them do land on their heels.
Since there is now enough evidence to show that sitting for long increases your chances of early mortality, so stand up, put on your shoes, or at least your shorts, and go run.