The Barefoot Debate

Steven Robbins, M.D., of Concordia University in Montreal, has fired another arrow at the shoe industry. His latest barb is in plain language, "...it might be more appropriate to classify athletic footwear as 'safety hazards' rather than 'protective devices.'"

Running and jumping stress your feet and legs. Too much stress causes problems, and there's a high injury rate among runners and aerobic dancers. There is evidence that this injury rate has increased recently. Also, there's a claim that people who wear expensive shoes are hurt more often than those who wear cheaper shoes. Robbins argues this means modern shoes aren't effective.

The Argument for Bare Feet

Robbins has surveyed populations who go barefoot. He says running injuries are rare in these people. He argues this means feet are naturally durable, but they lose it when we wear shoes.

In another study, Robbins encouraged runners to carry out as much barefoot weight-bearing activities as possible. After four months, their arches had shortened, and this goes along with stronger feet. Robbins thought this happened because barefoot weight- bearing made them use muscles weakened by shoes, and led to a general strengthening of their feet.

Robbins found bare feet responded to increased forces in a way that reduced those forces. He believes the more your feet are stressed, the harder they respond to lower the stress.

The claim that weight-bearing activity strengthens feet sounds reason-able, and was independently reported from England. This study also found barefoot activity shortens arches and that bare arches returned 70 percent of the energy that went into them. Running shoes returned only 40 to 50 percent. This implies you'll run faster barefoot, too, since shoes soak up more energy. Ballet dancers and gymnasts perform high-impact moves. They work out in only the flimsiest of shoes or in bare feet.

In another study, impacts were applied to men's feet. They sensed discomfort more readily when their feet were bare, compared to when they wore shoes. Shoes are dangerous, Robbins argues, because they produce "perceptual illusions" which reduce your sensations of overload.

Studies comparing bare feet with feet wearing shoes are flawed. Subjects know when their feet are bare. This means the experiments cannot be rigorously controlled. If the participants knew what result the experimenters expected, unconsciously they could give it to them.

Also, some sources point out that about 80 percent of sneakers belong to young people who don't exercise. To cater to people who tie their self-esteem to their feet, fashion becomes more important than biomechanics, critics claim.

The Argument for Shoes

Robbins' views cause howls from shoe companies, who claim their designs are based on sound biomechanical research. You can't prove that, though, because the business is so competitive that these studies are regarded as trade secrets and are not usually published.

The shoe companies' cries are echoed by podiatrists, orthopedists, and biomechanics researchers. Health care specialists point out, correctly, that many injuries are due to mechanical defects and imbalances in feet and legs. These are mostly corrected with stable shoes, sometimes with orthotic inserts.

Robbins makes sense chiefly for people with normal feet. Podiatrists and orthopedists often say nobody has normal feet, but this argument is weak because these experts see mostly problem feet. Folks who exercise without injury don't consult doctors.

Is Shoe-Less for You?

Bare feet work for some people. Elite runner Zola Budd from South Africa trained barefoot and raced in shoes. Abebe Bikila won his first Olympic marathon running barefoot, and broke the world record. American runners who ran the last Moscow marathon reported Russian running shoes are lousy, and some of the Muscovites ran in bare feet.

If you've been injured simply because of a sudden big increase in training, and you don't have problem feet, maybe you could try bare foot running, after you've recovered. If your feet are fine, and you're never injured, you can afford to experiment.

Don't go overboard if you decide to test the bare-feet idea. First try going without shoes in your house. If that feels okay for a few weeks, you can try walking barefoot around the block. If you build up walking distance without trouble, eventually you might be ready for a short run. Remember, avoid sudden increases. At the first sign of a problem, back off. You'll also have to pay close attention to where you tread. The last thing you need is a bruised or cut foot.


(Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 217-224)

Volume 9, Number 6, Running & FitNews
? The American Running Association.

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