Barefoot running and opinion pieces

It seems that there have recently been a few “news” articles (or rather opinion pieces) that seek to dismiss the claims of those who say barefoot or minimalist running is a good thing. Sometimes they attempt this using a study to back up their ideas, but it seems like one writer, who has been particularly high profile in this, doesn’t necessarily understand the studies too well, or is just way too keen to try to make them fit her own preconceived opinion.

The most recent one was a few weeks ago: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/05/is-barefoot-style-running-best-new-studies-cast-doubt/?hp

The key paragraph in this article seemed to be this one: “In the end, this data showed that heel-striking was the more physiologically economical running form, by a considerable margin. Heel strikers used less oxygen to run at the same pace as forefoot strikers, and many of the forefoot strikers used less oxygen — meaning they were more economical — when they switched form to land first with their heels.” but I had a hard time reconciling parts of this statement with the study abstract which is linked from within the article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23681915

This abstract explains how they took 19 runners with a rearfoot strike and 18 with a forefoot strike and in various scenarios measured their rates of oxygen consumption (VO2) and rates of carbohydrate contribution to total energy expenditure (%CHO).

Let’s start by looking at this part of the statement above: “Heel strikers used less oxygen to run at the same pace as forefoot strikers”, this seems to completely contradict the abstract where it clearly states that “No differences in VO2 or %CHO were detected between groups when running with their habitual footstrike pattern.” so where is the NY Times writer getting her conclusion?

Perhaps it’s from this part of the abstract: “The RF pattern resulted in lower VO2 and %CHO compared to the FF pattern at the slow and medium speeds in the RF group (P<0.05) but not in the FF group (P>0.05).” – this seems to say that those who regularly run with a rear foot strike don’t do as well when running with a forefoot strike. This would not necessarily seem unexpected perhaps if you stop to think about it – if you’ve not run with a forefoot strike before it’s probably not going to be easy (in fact there’s plenty of information out there about how hard making that transition is), therefore there seems to be a reasonable chance you would be less efficient. What it does say is that those who run with a forefoot strike do just as well when using a rear foot strike which makes them more adaptable – surely that’s a positive for forefoot runners.

It could also be a conclusion reached from a brief reading of the last part of the abstract – and the interesting part to me – “At the fast speed, a significant pattern main effect indicated that VO2 was greater with the FF pattern than the RF pattern (P<0.05) but %CHO was not different (P>0.05).”.

As they had already shown, the rear foot strikers had problems at the lower speeds when they tried to run with a forefoot strike, so it would make perfect sense that this carried over to the higher speeds.

However it also seems to indicate that the forefoot strike runners seemed to be even more efficient when they reverted back to the rear foot strike. Don’t forget when they were running their habitual pattern both groups were the same. Now, not having read the full study I have no idea if that’s really what it is trying to say, but from first glance it may logically follow that running with a forefoot strike strengthens your muscles in ways that a rear foot strike do not, and then perhaps forefoot strike runners have stronger legs can then run even more efficiently with a rear foot strike? Of course, it doesn’t necessarily make sense for a forefoot runner to switch to a rear foot strike because if you become an habitual rear foot runner then you may well end up back at the same efficiency.

I’ve really only focused on the article here, but there do seem to be some queries about the study too – they apparently tried to control by giving all the runners the same shoes to wear which, if you’re a runner, probably makes you wonder if that introduces more variables than it controls for (people run in different shoes for a reason). We don’t really know what types of shoes these people regularly run in and that can make a difference – just because they have a forefoot strike (and do they really mean forefoot, or do they include mid-foot in that definition?) it does not mean that they are minimalist or barefoot runners (something that the author of the article takes as an assumption in the title of the post).

Also, there is nothing that I have seen here that indicates that forefoot striking is worse for someone who does it habitually – it seems to show not much of a difference which is backed up by the line in the article “Five separate studies there found no significant benefits, in terms of economy, from switching to minimalist, barefoot-style footwear.”

It’s also worth noting that increased efficiency isn’t usually the top priority for those who make the switch – it would seem that the potential for reduced injury is one of the top reasons, which brings me to another piece by the same writer from a few months ago: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/06/barefoot-running-can-cause-injuries-too/.

She seems to approach her writing from the same anti-barefoot stance with the title is “Barefoot Running Can Cause Injuries, Too” because near the end of the article you see this statement from the doctor who undertook the study, where some runners were given Vibram Fivefingers and told to run in them a mile the first week, 2 miles the second, 3 the third and then whatever they wanted after that:  ““But I would tell anyone who wants to try” kicking off their normal shoes, “to be extremely cautious during the transition period.” In her study, substituting a mere mile per week of normal running at the start with one in minimal shoes “was probably too much,” she says.”.

Perhaps a less biased title would have been “Transitioning Too Quickly To Barefoot Running Can Cause Injuries”.

Ultimately what matters to me is that I am very comfortable running the way I do, and it seems to have served me well, and that’s all that really matters. I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have become as fast in regular running shoes, or that I would have been injured, but I did notice that aches and pains were considerably less in my first 5k in Vibram fivefingers than my last 5k in regular shoes (and I was faster).

Just when I was most of the way through putting together this post another blogger referenced it in a very interesting and thoughtful post, so take the time to read it: http://dans-marathon.com/2013/06/19/are-we-running-in-a-bubble/

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5 Responses to Barefoot running and opinion pieces

  1. Dan says:

    You make great points. I’ve been a forefoot striker for almost four years now, and sure enough, if I were asked to switch suddenly to heelstriking, I would probably not have the best form. That said, I would probably retain some sense of fluid running mechanics and keep a relatively efficient gait nonetheless.

    My philosophy on the whole thing is: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If your barefoot / minimalist stride and footwear let you run for many miles a week without injury, then hell, keep doing it. That said, I’ll still preach that forefoot striking is the way to go if anyone asks.

    Thanks for the shout out!

    • runninginnj says:

      No problem and thanks for reading – yours was a good post. I’ve not really felt confident enough to say outright that forefoot is the way to go because I still feel like a new runner. Who am I to argue with people who have been running for years, but, as you say, go with whatever works for you.

  2. Jess_A says:

    Thanks for this analysis, I had read the article also but not searched out the original abstract so was a little put off by it (not a lot though, it still seemed very inconclusive to me). It’s always a good idea to be skeptical of a journalistic interpretation of research, espcially if the they are apparently under the influence of confirmation bias!

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