Probably Not a Good Idea
As with most other fitness debates, this seems to be one of those questions where there may be no universal best answer; everyone is different and you may need to (carefully) experiment. But after much research, pondering, vacillation, hair-pulling and cursing, I've reached a tentative decision about what may be best for me.
Here's what I've come up with, and I discovered a couple of magic tricks which may only work for me, but what the hell. But I'll be quite curious to see what you all do about the question of appropriate footwear.
First off, wouldn't it be awesome if this blog post had a comprehensive review of all the studies, resources, expert analysis, charts, graphs, diagrams, and videos on the subject?
Let's pretend this says something really important about footwear!
But let's see... that would require, um, work. And well... this is Crabby McSlacker's blog. You do the math.
Instead, how about we oversimplify, make fun of everyone, put up some pictures that have nothing to do with anything, and then send you to a few links that contain actual information?
The bible of the barefooters appears to be the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, all about the Tarahumara Indians who can run hundreds of miles barefoot without rest or injury or Clif bars or Gatorade. It's an interesting read, and it inspired a barefoot running movement that caught on big time, especially with primal people, who can now tell you all about it. Because as we know, Primal/Paleo folks love the old pre-historic days so much, they spend hours and hours on the internet checking the latest research on how live more like cavemen.
Must find paleo cupcake recipe!
Much personal experimentation and enthusiasm and blogging have ensued since then.
What about research?
Well the sciencey folks at the Harvard skeletal biology lab have gotten in the game and are pretty encouraging regarding the biomechanics of barefoot/minimalist running. According to their summary:
"Most experienced, habitually barefoot runners tend to avoid landing on the heel and instead land with a forefoot or midfoot strike. ... Most forefoot and some midfoot strikes (shod or barefoot) do not generate the sudden, large impact transients that occur when you heel strike (shod or barefoot). Consequently, runners who forefoot or midfoot strike do not need shoes with elevated cushioned heels to cope with these sudden, high transient forces that occur when you land on the ground. Therefore, barefoot and minimally shod people can run easily on the hardest surfaces in the world without discomfort from landing."There are at least a couple of studies indicating that barefoot/minimalist runners report fewer injuries than more heavily shod runners. However, in general there hasn't been enough convincing research either way in terms of long term injuries. Most scholarly articles on barefoot running end up wussing out with conclusions like "the research is really not conclusive on whether one approach is better than the other."
But hey, since our ancestors did so well with this approach, why wouldn't we all want to run out and try running barefoot immediately? What could possibly go wrong?
Well yeah, some of us may be overly fussy and have a slight aversion to shredding our feet into hamburger patties.
Thus, the birth of the minimalist shoe!
Very trendy and, um, fashionable!
Runner's world has an interesting write up on the birth and evolution of the minimalist shoe. The idea is to provide protection against sharp objects while still permitting a barefoot running style.
However, one look at the proliferation of types and styles seem to indicate that "minimalist" is subject to many different interpretations. One of which seems to be: "something we can charge a lot more for because they're hot right now even though there's nothing much inside."
One bit of cautionary advice that is always offered: the transition to barefoot or minimalist running can cause injuries if not taken slowly. In fact, one scary podiatrist warns that minimalist shoes can cause injuries way worse than regular shoes:
"More severe than typical overuse stress fractures, these injuries almost always require non-weightbearing immobilization with crutches to heal. The problem with these injuries is they start out as an annoyance and slowly build from discomfort to pain without a specific inciting event, causing the runners to continue training in spite of injury."
As unhip as traditional shoes are, these are what many runners still wear.
And for those of us who are bio-mechanically challenged and suffer conditions like plantar fasciitis, runner's knee, shin splits, itb issues, back problems, hip problems, ass problems, etc, this whole barefoot/minimalist controversy particularly perplexing.
We've gone to podiatrists or other medical professionals, who point out that we have legs that are different lengths or that we overpronate or walk like constipated pigeons or otherwise can't put one foot in front of the other without screwing something up.
What do these doctors usually recommend? Prescription orthotics, coupled with shoes offering extra support and/or cushioning. These are supposed to make sure our feet aren't flopping around so much or getting slammed too hard by our feet pounding on hard surfaces.
Barefoot running? La la la la we can't hear you...
In fact, many of us with plantar fasciitis have been cautioned to avoid walking barefoot, ever. Not at the beach, not to visit the bathroom in the middle of the night--basically: never, ever, ever.
The second most deadly podiatrical sin? Unsupportive shoes, particularly if they are attractive in any way.
Because this view of human biomechanics is so entrenched, it is actually hard to find it well articulated and supported on the free-for-all web; at least if one uses quick and lazy google searches as a research method. The online consensus actually swings heavily in favor of the fiesty pro-barefoot/minimalist camp, because they love to talk about their feet. Apparently the old-school podiatrists who tell us not to go barefoot are too busy playing golf and watching Law and Order reruns to spend a lot of time posting on the web.
Crabby's Boring Analysis of Her Own Biomechanical Problems:
(Leg Length Differential + Lazy Feet + Sloppy Gait + Pounding Too Hard) x (Too Many Decades Running) = F*#cked up Feet and Knees.
Basically, I was running and walking as though my feet were encased in cement blocks, letting my feet and calf muscles take a siesta while my upper leg muscles did all the work. My upper leg muscles didn't much give a crap how or where my feet landed and what weird rotations my knees might be going through as a result.
Three Magic Tricks Crabby Uses because She's Too Scared/Injured/Old to Try Barefoot/Minimalist Running:
Note: I am not an podiatrist, a physical therapist, or even a health blogger with much common sense, so these magic tricks might actually make your problem worse! They just seem to help me. I figure if hard heel striking and lazy feet muscles are a problem, what if try to work on that while still wearing regular shoes? Here's my weird method:
1. I simply imagine I am running barefoot even though I'm not. Sounds doofy, right? But whenever I can manage the dumb-ass barefoot visualization, it shifts the way I run. My hard heel-strike landing becomes more of a more midfoot landing, my stride length shortens, my ankles get less rigid, and I engage my feet and calves muscles much more and not just my thighs. That way I still get the cushioning my shoe provides, but I don't seem to hit the ground nearly as hard.
2. I wear backless clogs sometimes for walking around. This also shifts my weight off my heel and encourages my forefoot to be more active as my heel rises.
3. I lace the front of my running shoes fairly tightly and loosen the back a bit, similarly allowing my heel to lift, which seems to lead to more engagement in my feet and calves.
(I've also tried a gazillion other things, some of which helped with feet/knee injuries and some of which most decidedly did not. In fact I just deleted two long paragraphs about all that because this post is already too long and tedious. Imaginary barefoot running is just one of many crazy experiments and probably not the last one either!)
So what you guys think about barefoot running, minimalist shoes, orthotics, or anything else?
Gallery shoe: Sarah and Iain
Broken Glass: Machine Made
Minimalist shoe: Madame Furie
3-D graph: Damn, can't remember source. Anyone know or care? Happy to correct.
Caveman: Go ahead and sue me, Geico. Knock yourselves out.