Vibram FiveFingers, barefoot vs shod running, and science in the public eye

There has been a lot things said online about barefoot vs shod running, and the whole minimalist approach to footwear. Even more so now that Vibram have had to settle in their recent case on falsely advertising the health benefits of using their footwear.

Is barefoot running bad for you?

No. Quite simply, the act of barefoot running, or running in minimalist shoes that supposedly mimic barefoot running, is not bad for you. What is bad for you is running too far/fast too soon, not allowing enough recovery or running with the wrong technique.

When we exercise we damage our bodies. This is what we want. For example, we get small tears within our muscles. This is good. This causes our body to repair the damaged muscle. Additionally, during the repair process the body makes the muscle stronger; the body adapts to the stimulus. But this obviously requires time. The body can’t magic muscle to recover immediately.

As such, if we don’t provide our body with the rest between sessions that is required, we will continue on a downward slope in which our body can’t recover fully between sessions. So on the next session we are starting at a lower lever. Over time this will lead to fatigue and injury.

How does this apply to barefoot running?

Barefoot running (or running in minimalist shoes; this isn’t exactly the same, but the consequences are the same) causes most people to adopt less of a heel-strike during landing. This puts a greater emphasis on the calf musculature during landing.

During this landing, the ankle dorsiflexes (i.e. the heel drops relative to the toes). This causes the calf musculature to lengthen whilst contracting (this is an “eccentric” contraction). This type of contraction causes the most damage within a muscle (we are effectively pulling the muscle apart whilst it’s trying to contract); eccentric contractions are a pivotal part of gaining muscle mass/strength.

This damage needs to be repaired. But this greater amount of damage requires a greater amount of time to recover. Additionally, it doesn’t take as long to get damaged. As such, when transitioning to barefoot/minimalist running we need to take our time. You simply won’t be able to survive on the same training programme immediately.

So when I hear quotes (although it does seem paraphrased) from (supposed) personal trainers as is seen in this article I get very concerned, not only about the personal training industry (queue abuse), but also about peoples’ ability to wholeheartedly believe what a salesperson is telling you (companies want to make money!!!).

“She could wear them only for about half a mile before her calves began to ache, and she didn’t want to risk injury while training for a marathon. After a month, she was back to running in more traditional shoes full time.”

A month simply isn’t long enough to transition to a new form of running. You are using muscles in a way that you have probably never used them before. Surely someone who works in the industry of fitness should know this. (disclaimer: I’m not attacking the fitness industry here as I’m aware there are lots of very good personal trainers…although there are also a lot of bad ones too).

So should I change to barefoot/minimalist running

Quite simply, this is not a black or white discussion. Science is showing contradictory findings, which suggests that there is something else to play a part. This is likely to be your running technique. For a movement that nearly every single person does at least once in their lives, we don’t really know much about what is the best running technique. This may come as a surprise, but whether it’s for performance, injury prevention/recovery, we don’t actually know. Many people will tell you to run a certain way, but that is not going to be based fully on science.

Some have found benefits from switching to barefoot running. One population appears to be those who suffer from overuse injuries of the shin (I don’t want to use the term “shin splints” here as that is just an umbrella term people use for anything; although the medical population seems to have an approximate agreement that it should be used solely for medial tibial stress syndrome). However, this is likely to not be because of the footwear itself, but because of how the footwear promotes less of a heel strike during ground-contact.

If Vibram got sued for mis-promoting “science”, can we sue other people?

Vibram’s case was about misrepresenting the science that wasn’t actually there. What I find shocking is that in other areas, we seem happy to accept what we are told, despite the presence of scientific support being lacking. This includes:

To name a few. Despite what we may think we know as a human race, we actually know very little.

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