Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Barefoot Professor Misrepresented By Shoe Consultant

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?


  1. I'm not surprised in the least bit that Mr. Tucker has taken such a negative stand against barefoot running (or even barefooting in general) - after all, he's being paid by Adidas to find ways to make people continue to believe they need to use shoes all the time.

    What does surprise me is that he comes from Capetown, where, as I understand from South African sources, public barefooting is still a fairly commonplace activity - similar to other places like Australia or New Zealand.

    I really find it very upsetting (to say the least) that people like Mr. Tucker use their credentials (in this case his scientific background) in order to sell twisted ideas to the general public who, in their great majority, are so used to relying on people with university titles and "credentials" in order to make life-changing decisions. Sadly, nowadays, most of people in positions of power or influence take advantage of their position to spread erroneous ideas.

  2. I beg your pardon? A negative stance on barefoot running? If you bother to read any of the three articles I have written on the topic, you will see very clearly that I am a big advocate FOR barefoot running. In fact, I have taken every opportunity to say that "everyone should try barefoot running", and that "for some people, barefoot running will be the solution to injury problems"
    Go read it, Moe and Daniel.

    My problem is that you guys are a source of a problem for barefoot running, not a positive influence. You do more damage than good. And daniel I would like to thank you for writing this piece because anyone who read my summary and now this piece will have a better picture of what I was putting across, so thank you for re-informing it

    And to barefootmoe, again,please read what I'm saying, because I'm one of your biggest allies in this debate. The only difference is that for you, it's a crusade. And if you did read my thoughts, then you would discover that I, the "adidas drone", am actually arguing that barefoot running is great.

    So before you accuse me of selling out to the industry, allow me to point out that I am sponsored by adidas, I don't work on product development (I'm in SA, do you really think that German head office use us in SA to develop shoes? Seriously, wake up and smell the global business world). And despite being sponsored by them, I advocate running barefoot.

    Thanks for emphasizing why moderate people find it so difficult to take you guys seriously. And Daniel, be grateful I didn't bring up that diabetes issue, for which you should really be ashamed.

    Ross Tucker (who is young, yes, thank you Dan, I'm flattered)

  3. Ross, I never said you took a negative stance on barefoot running, I said you grossly misrepresented MY stance on barefoot running, which you did.

    You will notice that I do not moderate comments to this blog so that anyone can post and all points of view can be heard. I notice that you have still not posted my comment to your blog directing your readers to my response.

  4. No Daniel, that was to Moe, very clearly, who did.

    The other responses, where I mention you specifically, were to you.

    Just on this note, it's telling that your first and strongest rebuttal of what I've said is to label me "Shoe consultant". So let me ask you this: Where did you find out that I'm a "shoe consultant". What does that mean to you? Because if you bother to do your research, which you don't, then you'd have discovered the following.

    I am not a shoe consultant. I work at the University of Cape Town where I research, among other things, barefoot running. I also work for the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, where I work with high performance teams on their strategy and sports science application.

    Then, because this gives me some profile within SA, I am sponsored by Adidas South Africa, NOT to do shoe development work or to advocate for shoes, but because I am a coach, and because I work in the public to help recreational runners run better. The work for adidas is therefore aimed at helping the lay public understand physiology (hence, consultant) I do seminars and presentations to the public on training theory and sports science. End of story. If you honestly believe that a division of adidas in South Africa is going to use a local guy on shoe consultancy, then your understanding of global business is about as weak as your understanding on the science of barefoot running.

    My problem with all of this is that you seem unwilling to let the facts get in the way of your belief. Yours is primarily a belief system, not a scientifically based argument, and I think you have a responsibility to at least give a balanced point of view. The diabetes example, for which you should be ashamed and possibly afraid of litigation, is the worst case, but there are others.

    I think your stance of the concept is admirable, and I agree with you - this is why I have repeatedly written that barefoot running should be tried by everyone, but may not BE for everyone (the distinction is clear, I hope).

    However, I think the you (and guys like Moe) are destructive to helping our understanding, because you offer only advocacy, no education. It is therefore misleading and a lot of people will pay as a result. It's a damaging force to gradually changing the perception, and you back it up by attacking the messenger (why call me "young", Daniel? And why call me "shoe consultant" when you are clearly ignorant about what that even means?"

    It's unnecessary and helps the debate not one bit.

    And that is a big problem.


  5. Oh, and Daniel, the reason I haven't yet approved your comment is because I have been in transit for the last 17 hours on my way back to SA. The Twitter discussion about your post is the first I've seen, and I'll only check my emails and the comments later.

    Hope that's OK with you?

  6. Last comment, to Moe and Dan:

    Check out this Q&A I hosted on Facebook recently:

    Scroll down for the Q&A part.

    I think you'll find very little "against" barefoot running there, Moe. Wonder what the shoe companies would say to that?

    All I'm saying is that in a debate that clearly lacks evidence, it doesn't mean you have to remain willfully ignorant. There's enough there to take a balanced view, but a view that is based on belief is destructive.

    Physical therapists are the big beneficiaries, because this whole movement is a stimulus plan for them. Unless every statement is qualified...


  7. To Daniel

    Just got your comment now - take out the factual misrepresentation of me as a shoe consultant, and I'll consider airing your views on my site, which is more of a science site, less of a belief one.

  8. Oh sorry, I missed your last question:

    So, misrepresenting your “opponent” is the best way to advance your argument – buy or sell?

    First point - we're actually not opponents. I agree with you, we share a desire to get people running barefoot. I think you do it very badly though. But the idea of "opponent" actually betrays your position in this one. It's weak and as I said, very unhelpful to advancing our understanding of barefoot running. Why don't you put your scientist mind on and go find the evidence?

    Second point, I'm afraid they were all sold out of that option, because you've misrepresented a lot of science - don't let the facts get in the way of your belief and all.

    But overall, sell. If you feel misrepresented, then that's too bad. It's the 300 or so people in the audience who might disagree with you on that.

  9. Ross,

    The UKSEM conference program lists you as a "consultant for Adidas South Africa" in your speaker profile.

  10. This article has many valid points, but it argues primarily from the standpoint that shoes are considered to be the default, and anything else must be justified. The burden of proof is always on the barefoot position.

    "A negative stance on barefoot running?"

    Yes, Ross, a negative stance. I see the phrase "barefoot evangelist", but I don't see the phrase "shoe evangelist". You tell people "Buy, but keep the receipt for a refund". I.e. try barefoot, but don't get rid of your shoes yet, because you may not be one of the special people who can do this. And moving from away from the BF position is always characterized as the "practical approach", or the "voice of reason". Never is anyone characterized positively who has gone more toward barefoot.

    "Daniel Howell said...
    I notice that you have still not posted my comment to your blog directing your readers to my response."

    I couldn't even find an option to leave a comment.

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Welcome to The Barefoot Professor blog, intelligent talk about running, walking and living barefoot. I encourage your comments, even if you disagree with me. In this spirit I don't even moderate the comments. However, PLEASE use critical thinking skills when leaving comments, and avoid inflammatory words. Please keep your comments short and to-the-point. THANKS.