Thursday, June 20, 2013

Man do your feet stink: On minimalism and barefoot

Is it finally safe to step outdoors again? Has the dust settled? After the meteoric rise of the barefoot and minimalist movement, it would seem as though the shoe genre is falling back to Earth. This, according to many industry analysts pointing to the 10% fall in minimalist shoes during the first quarter of 2013, could mark the beginning to the end of an era. That development is in contrast to SportsOneSource's quarterly reports of the last few years, in which the minimalist category had some of the highest growth, while sales in categories such as motion control and stability stagnated or fell.

Sales in motion control shoes rose by more than 25% in the first three months of the year and hot on its heels was a 10% increase in stability shoes. In fact, barefoot and minimalist type running shoes only represented 4% of total running shoes in SportOneSource's analysis. Was barefoot really just a fad? Or was it just sorely misunderstood, a tortured sole looking for a home?
My feet hurt just thinking of this.
Much of the barefoot movement came about because of some pilot studies looking at various Kenyan tribes and one particular tribe in Mexico that runs long distances barefoot. It was reported that it was more fuel efficient- you spared your glycogen reserves more (your carbs), because your VO2 max was lower and you could use your high energy fat reserves longer- basically you were a running machine and super efficient. Your foot fall contact was light and your turnover quick- you were faster and you weren't stomping/slapping the ground when you ran. Maybe it was because you were more self-aware that you were running over hard surfaces, you could feel every stone and every crack, that you ended up changing your gait and your knee and hip alignment and you got less injured. These were all the reasons presented in these few pilot studies suggesting the benefits of switching to barefoot.

But new evidence is coming out that contradicts everything. Injury rates didn't fall, and in a lot of cases, they increased. New studies show that VO2 fell when going barefoot, and efficiency went down with it. Even the Kenyan foot strike data was disputed. And more science about the rearfoot strike being more economical at submax speeds has come out contradictory to the idea that barefoot is more efficient in terms of running.

After such a HUGE increase in the barefoot movement at the start of the decade, it seems to have come crashing down. But why? Most people who aren't in the know don't read all the scientific literature to see why it was or wasn't such a great idea. If I could hazard a guess as to why minimalism has slowed so much, it would be because of a lack of knowledge. People just jump head first into these things without ever knowing the how-to's and why's of the situation. People get injured and don't know why, when these shoes and the whole minimalist ideals are supposed to prevent injury.

The main thing that people don't realize is that barefoot running takes a long time to transition to. A long time. Especially if you've been running in big motion control and guidance shoes for so long. This is one of those things where you run maybe once or twice a week for 15 minutes at a time just to get used to it. You work your way up, GRADUALLY, to the point where you are able to run everyday barefoot or in your minimalist shoes, then you start ramping up your mileage in your minimalist shoes. Too often have I come across a poor soul that has destroyed their achilles or knees or shins from thinking they can do the same workouts they had previously been doing whilst in standard runners, but now in their trendy new barefoot shoes. And one of the problems was that dealers were all too happy to sell them to an unaware customer without warning them of the potential dangers of transitioning too fast to barefoot.
Vibram revolutionized the running scene and took the community by storm but people never knew how to get the most out of them.
 Which brings me to another point. Motion control shoes and stability shoes exist for a reason. People, if you haven't noticed, are different. We all have different running forms, our foot falls all differ slightly, and we each have our own, individualized gait. You could have the strongest feet in the world, but if you overpronate or you run knocked knee, guess what? Barefoot shoes aren't going to change that- it is just how you run, it is what is most natural for you. You do it naturally because it is what works best for you, it may not be efficient for others, but it gets the job done for you pretty well.

Maybe this decrease of the barefoot/minimalist is a good thing (much to the chagrin of podiatrists everywhere). Maybe it gives everyone a chance to step back and re-assess the realities presented. Some people swear by it and have found huge success with it. Others have scoffed at barefoot running and called it nothing more than a passing fad. There still remain many benefits of trying barefoot once and a while- it does indeed help to strengthen your feet and will get your foot speed turning over quicker, both of which are useful for being the best runner you can be. It has also drastically changed the running shoe market today. Heel-to-toe drops in running shoes are disappearing. Consumers are calling for shoes that are lower to the ground but offer more padding and cushioning than a traditional minimal barefoot shoe. Barefoot running will always have a niche I think, and minimalist shoes are great tools for becoming a better runner but the go-to shoes now are going to be lightweight trainers. Shoes which offer more neutral, cushioned shoes that offer a higher performance ride like the Saucony Kinvara and Virrata, the Brooks Pure Project, the "Zero Drop" style shoes like the Altra Instinct, and the New Balance 1400 and 890.

Until next time!

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