There are as many reasons for running as there are days in the year, years in my life. But mostly I run because I am an animal and a child, an artist and a saint. So, too, are you. Find your own play, your own self-renewing compulsion, and you will become the person you are meant to be.
- George Sheehan

Saturday, May 26, 2012

"Barefoot running" craze and the "Me me me!" attitude are hurting barefoot running.

I was recently contacted by local press about doing a couple of pieces on barefoot running.  Now I can't help but sit and ponder how exactly I'm going to best represent what barefoot running is.  What it means to me, what it can mean to others...where do I start?  Most importantly, how do I best educate and inform the general public, who seem increasingly afraid of the "dangers" of barefoot running?

A public who has brought this fear on themselves.  Wherever I go on the internet, or whenever barefoot running comes up in conversation, I find myself more often having to defend its safety and practicality.  People are quick to point out that more and more people are getting injured by taking their shoes off, or using minimalist shoes.  Some of "those" podiatrists and the traditionally shod runners with tight sphincters are beginning to say, "HA HA WE TOLD YOU SO!"  This is particularly amusing, because they have absolutely no idea what they're talking about.  It has nothing to do with barefoot running.  It has EVERYTHING to do with people not taking care of themselves.  Which apparently, is no longer their responsibility.  Ridiculous!!

The "I want it now" attitude is what injures people
I hear about the "outbreak" of barefoot running injuries, and it makes me want to slap someone.  First off, most of those new injuries are with folks who run in minimalist shoes, not barefoot.  YES, there is a difference.  Secondly, with all the attention that barefoot/minimalist running is getting, and all the numbers of new people trying it, OF COURSE there will be a higher number.  Simply because there is a higher number of people trying it.  This isn't indicative of how dangerous barefoot running is!  It does say everything about how greedy and impatient people are these days.  Our society's impatience and "give it to me now" attitude are getting people injured, and giving the podiatrists and the anti-barefoot running camp ample ammunition.

When I first started getting back into running in 2009, all of my running buddies told me: "Go to a good running store and get fitted for high quality running shoes.  That will solve all your problems!"  Unfortunately, it didn't.  My issues were about me, and no shoe was going to correct them.  But over the last couple of years and through my transition to barefoot running, I hear that advice ALL the time.  There is a pervasive idea amongst runners that a shoe can make them a better runner.  That simply by throwing something new on their feet, that all their ills will be cured.  This is not the case.  Running is about the runner.  A fundamental issue with the runner (ie. truly poor form) will NOT be fixed simply by throwing on a new shoe.  It's like throwing new tires on a car with a broken engine or drive train and expecting it to just work.  Life doesn't work that way.

YOU CAN'T TRANSITION QUICKLY TO BAREFOOT RUNNING.  You just can't.  For some people it'll take months to properly (and slowly) strengthen/condition their feet for the workload.  For others, it may take a year or more.  Yes, your feet (even those living in shoes all the time) are designed to do this.  But not right away because they're atrophied and weak from years of not being exercised naturally.  Muscles need to be built back up.  Bone density needs to be recovered.  This process happens very slowly for a lot of people.  It takes a great amount of time, dedication, and patience most of all to safely condition your feet for barefoot/minimalist running.  It cannot be rushed.  

Responsibility is extinct
Back when I transitioned to minimalism in 2009, then finally barefoot running in 2010, I didn't blame the Vibram FiveFingers or barefoot running when I got injured.  It never occurred to me to sue Vibram or Mizuno for their ultra light, minimalist shoes I wore.  Why?  BECAUSE I CHOSE TO WEAR THEM.  It was MY responsibility to take care of myself.  Vibram includes little educational pamphlets with their FiveFinger shoes.  They have an educational website.  They, as a company, do a reasonable job of telling people "Hey, these shoes require you to do some research and strengthen your feet."  The vast majority of people just seem to be completely unable to read.

There is a class-action lawsuit gathering against Vibram for their FiveFingers.  The argument is that people have sustained injuries because of the health benefits Vibram says will come from their shoes.  This is arguably one of the most absurd, idiotic, and disheartening pieces of news I have to read.  I'm no longer the world's biggest Vibram fan, but that's not actually the company's fault.  I just get sick and tired of listening to minimalist Vibram wearers talk about how they're "barefoot runners."  Just a nuisance, really.  However, the company now has to bear the burden of a group of people who have been injured in the FiveFingers, and are blaming it on the shoes.

Not themselves, the shoes.  Like the shoes made them run too fast.  The shoes made them run too often.  The shoes made them run too far.  The shoes made them COMPLETELY IGNORE the warning labels and educational material the company offers regarding safe transitioning and foot strengthening/conditioning.  And finally, the shoes landed these people in the doctor's office.  It's the shoes.  ...right?

No.  This utterly sickens me because people, as a whole, do not take responsibility for themselves anymore.  How you transition to barefoot/minimalism is ultimately on YOU.  There is educational material online and through shoe manufacturers.  Merrell has an entire website now dedicated to barefoot/minimalism education, like Vibram. There are online resources through independent groups that will teach you everything you need to know about barefoot running. There are barefoot clinics around the country where people can go to discuss and learn more about running minimalist or barefoot.  There are avenues to learn and become educated.  People just flat out ignore it.  Then, because they're too lazy to take responsibility for themselves, they blame it on the shoes.   They think the shoe will "solve all their problems."  After all, it's what they've been told for years.

I feel badly for Vibram.  They're being punished because their products requires that people not be complete idiots when using them.  Apparently that's too much to ask.

This is also a problem because as soon as these people mess up and blame the "barefoot running shoes," they then blame barefoot running.  I have long said that minimalist shoes like Vibrams have their own danger because they're not like actually running barefoot.  But the public, and indeed the press, does NOT distinguish between the two.  And it makes me sad.

"Barefoot Running" means barefoot running
I can't stress this enough - don't confuse running in minimalist "barefoot running shoes" with actual barefoot running. They are NOT one and the same.  They are fundamentally different.  And one is killing the other.

People are rushing out and grabbing any minimalist shoe they can find these days.  The "barefoot running" craze is getting more attention now than it ever has before.  I am afraid to say it's officially a fad.  Unfortunately with fads, it doesn't always end well.  Why?  Because people equate these minimalist shoes with actually running barefoot.  But, they're clearly shoes.  Yes, because they're minimalist, they require your foot to do all the work.  Unfortunately, they deprive the body of the vital sensory information and feedback that you get from the bottoms of your feet.  This sensory information tells you how softly to land, where to land, how quick your rhythm should be, when and how to adjust because something isn't right.  Your bare feet will literally tell you everything you need to know.  Most importantly, it tells you when to STOP.  This is the most important thing about barefoot/minimalist running transitions.  By going purely barefoot and listening when the bottoms of your feet tell you to stop for the day, you run a minimal risk of stressing the bones, muscles, and other soft tissue in your feet.  Let your skin be your guide, and it won't steer you wrong.

But because minimalist shoes deny that sensory feedback, new minimalist runners don't know when to stop.  They keep going because it feels good; it feels new.  And it's not long before some of them end up in the doctor's office with stress fractures.  And they can only blame themselves.

Start barefoot.  Ditch ALL the shoes, even the awesome minimalist ones. 

Finally, take responsibility for your actions and safety.  Stop and educate yourself.  Slow down.