Last summer while camping with philosophers I read the book Born to Run. This book has sparked quite a buzz among adventure types. It looks at super-marathons—runs of fifty miles or more in a single go—and suggests that running barefoot is healthier and safer than wearing shoes.
That’s actually not the main point of the book, which is more about how humans evolved to run long distances, and the search for the people who still do it (safely) today. During that quest, author Christopher McDougall found evidence that modern athletic shoes increase running injuries by weakening the foot. The solution he suggested—citing a number of sports doctors and coaches—is to wear thin-soled, unsupported shoes or no shoes at all.
People have fixated on this.
Barefoot running has become quite a trend. Before you sprint out and try it, let me warn you: suddenly switching your running routine to barefoot will lead to a stress fracture. Try downgrading to thinner shoes first. Start with a short jog. Slowly build your way up.
But the real issue is, is it worth it?
The reasoning offered by McDougall and others is simple. Padded, supportive running shoes with thick heels are relatively new. Even 30 years ago they didn’t exist. But we’ve been running marathon+ distances safely for tens of thousands of years.
So what do these shoes do?
According to the theory, they over-cushion and support our feet. The muscles don’t have to work as hard because the shoe restricts them. The foot muscles weaken and injury results.
That makes logical sense, but where’s–
To support this, McDougall mainly relies on time trend analysis. Padded shoes are supposed to prevent injuries, but do they? He compares the injury rate of professional athletes before the modern running shoe, to professional athletes today. If the best modern running shoes help prevent injury, we should see a decline in injuries over time.
But injuries haven’t declined.
The implication is that athletic shoes don’t do anything to help prevent injuries. Barefoot enthusiasts point to this as proof.
A time trend is an interesting reason to look into something, but it’s not proof. Many factors could affect running injuries over forty years. The evidence McDougall gathered is an interesting starting point, but that’s all.
This is a hot issue, so surely more studies must have been done, right? I decided to…
Ask An Actual Doctor
This issue matters to me because I’m going to be walking, say, 7000 miles or so. And, oh yeah, I have a busted ankle.
So as long as I’m hanging around a straight-talkin’ ankle/foot specialist, I thought I’d ask about barefoot running (or hiking).
“Wear some fucking shoes,” my surgeon told me. “I don’t mean those five-fingers. The best athletic shoes you can afford.”
I worried he was biased. “So have studies been done that actually show that? More padded shoes lead to less injuries?”
He sighed. Shit was getting serious.
“No. It’s a big debate with smart people in both camps. So far, no research has shown us a clear answer either way.”
The Seven Thousand Mile Question
I always prefer to make my decisions based on science. Science is hands-down the best tool we have, followed closely by rational philosophy, then instinct, then personal experience, and somewhere way down at the bottom of the dredge, hope and faith.
But in this case, science fails to answer my question. So I have to make a judgment call.
Do I wear thick, supportive athletic shoes? Or thin canvas shoes and sandals?
(I’m not literally going barefoot so those are your options.)
This is the seven thousand mile question. Choosing correctly could make my journey safer and more comfortable. Choose wrong, and I might be crippled when I’m 40—or laid up and suffering halfway to Brazil.
What do you think? If you knew you have arthritis in your ankle, and will be walking across two continents, what footwear would you equip for the journey?
I have some thoughts of my own on what to choose, but I’m eager to hear your opinion first. What do you say?
Update: You can see the shoes I finally chose—and why—in 1400 Mile Shoes.