I had the great pleasure of participating in a roundtable discussion on barefoot running at the recent UKSEM conference in London last week. The conference was a wonderful opportunity to meet hundreds of fascinating coaches, doctors, scientists and athletic trainers from around the globe. The roundtable discussion (titled “Natural Running – Advantages & Disadvantages”) was a memorable opportunity for me as I got to share the stage with experts on barefoot running and shoes. The five experts on the panel were Daniel Lieberman (Harvard), Benno Nigg (University of Calgary), Matthias Marquardt (Natural Running), Simon Bartold (ASICS) and myself. The discussion was moderated by Ross Tucker, a young scientist from the University of Cape Town who is a consultant for Adidas South Africa.
Unfortunately, Ross Tucker and I must not have been at the same roundtable discussion at UKSEM. In his summary of the discussion published on his blog today, Ross managed to completely misrepresent my statements on barefoot running. Let me set the record straight.
Ross started the roundtable discussion with the question: “'Shoes are evil. They do not help, they may even cause injury. Barefoot running is natural, and will help prevent injury, and therefore everyone should be encouraged to run barefoot'. Do you buy or sell this concept?"
Ross says that “only Daniel Howell outright bought the concept.” Unfortunately, that is completely untrue. My response to his “buy or sell” question was “Both. Buy and sell. 90% buy.” How does this translate to “outright bought the concept”?
Ross’ mischaracterization of my position doesn’t stop with this opening remark; he continues it all the way through his summary article.
Ross said in a blog for The Guardian and reiterated in his summary of the discussion that there are likely some “people who simply cannot adapt to barefoot running.” Although Ross Tucker may be “certain of this case,” it is pure conjecture. Neither of us have any scientific evidence on this point, but I say it’s equivalent to positing that some people (living in a hypothetical glove-wearing society) cannot adapt to using their bare hands upon taking their gloves off.
Ross accuses me of not recognizing that “being barefoot as a runner exists in a larger context, and that context includes about 100 things that make us different from our ancestors. For example, we sit at desks for 8 hours a day, we sleep on comfortable mattresses, we drive, and we "hunt" our food in supermarkets and not in bushlands, we play in shoes (when we're not playing on computer games), and we grow up in them and then at 30, we are faced with a possible change (as a result of this debate). Not one of those things happened before, but every one of them COULD be a contributing factor to injury risk. In other words, weakness of supporting muscles and tendons as a result of years of disuse and TV-watching might mean that being "natural" is a more risky option that being in shoes. There is a real possibility, as stated earlier, that some people need shoes in order to run.” (emphasis in original).
Of course I DO recognize that barefoot running exists in a larger context and I actually stressed this point during the discussion. I said that it’s unrealistic to spend decades growing up in shoes, wear shoes throughout the week, then take them off for a few minutes to run barefoot and expect your feet to perform well. This is one reason why I think we all should be walking barefoot more. Ross seems to be saying that because we eat McDonald’s junk food and watch TV too much, we should abandon doing anything that’s natural for our bodies. Actually, it might seem that Ross Tucker has a bone to pick with me since he quoted a tweet in which I called his above arguments “bull.” But he obviously misunderstands my point; Yes, there is a technique to running barefoot and (as I said in my book) we must be slowly weaned from shoes (i.e., rehabilitated), but unlike Ross I believe that everyone can do it barring some unusual medical problem. It is the suggestion that some people will always need big, bulky running shoes that I think is bull.
Ross also accuses me of making “a very basic mistake” by equating natural with better. He claims that antibiotics are not natural (actually most of them are) yet our lives have been enhanced by them, therefore natural is not always better. Ross clearly thinks he’s making a suitable analogy, but he’s comparing apples to oranges when he compares antibiotics to shoes. For the record, I agree that natural is not always better. There is no doubt that man-made products (or “unnatural” uses of natural products like antibiotics) have benefited mankind, but this doesn’t mean that all man-made inventions benefit mankind. Unlike antibiotics, shoes have a demonstrably negative effect on human anatomy and gait; I’ve written a book detailing these effects.
Finally, Ross neglected to mention that I said there will always be a need for shoes – under the harshest terrain or weather conditions, for example. My philosophy is that shoes are tools, use them when necessary but not otherwise. And when shoes must be worn, choose those that have a minimal impact on foot anatomy and gait biomechanics. What I “buy” is that traditional running shoes with bulky cushioning, elevated heels, arch supports and toe springs are man-made concoctions that have an unnatural impact on human stance and ambulation; they likely cause injuries and can be done without.
So, Ross Tucker, I have a question for you: Misrepresenting your “opponent” is the best way to advance your argument – buy or sell?