HBO Real Sports on Barefoot Running – Right or Wrong?

This week’s (5/18) HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel did a feature on barefoot running.

Did they get it right, or not?

Well, overall, I’d say they were right on… with one exception I’ll mention in a moment.

  • They repeatedly pointed out that there are no studies that prove barefoot running reduces injuries, nor are there studies that show running in shoes causes them.
  • They emphasized that if you want to make the transition to barefoot, you should start slow — run for a short amount of time and distance (and build up slowly) to let your body learn to handle the new demands
  • Chris McDougal repeatedly qualified his statements with “I believe…” And it’s true, those of us who have moved to barefoot have our anecdotal evidence that we use to support us.

What they missed:

  • The point that Olympic athletes wear shoes is, in certain ways, irrelevant. Why? Because 99.9% of us are not Olympic athletes putting in the mileage they do, or running the speeds they do. And because if you look at their form, it’s closer to barefoot than your average heel-striking jogger.
  • The Nike Free is far from being a “barefoot shoe.” Sure it flexes really well (and, full disclosure, I have 3 pair that I used to love wearing… but it’s been a year since I last put mine on), but it has a big, padded, wide heel.
  • Ditto on the Vibram Five Fingers (I love how they pronounced it correctly — VEE-bram!). The VFFs have a lot more structure and support, plus a thickened sole on the ball of the foot and heel.

And, of course, the biggest thing they got wrong was right in front of their face! HUARACHES! They talked about the Tarahumara running in huaraches, but when they gave advice about protecting yourself from things you could step on (or in!) in our modern world, they neglected to mention huarache running sandals (let alone Invisible Shoes… even though they had some film of runners in I-shoes).

Ah, well… next time 😉

Anyone else see the show? What did you think?

  • Dale

    They also didn’t talk about the fact that running barefoot on flat pavement is not very good. Not only should one run naturally barefoot, one should strive to run on natural terrain. Am I assuming right that running barefoot on pavement for long periods could lead to “flat feet” i.e. “fallen arches”?

    • Steven

      My experience is the EXACT opposite. I *LOVE* running barefoot on pavement (or here on the Boulder Creek path). It’s a smooth, consistent, clean surface.

      And, far from leading to flat feet or fallen arches… I *started* with flat feet, and running barefoot has been leading to my developing arches for the first time in my life.

      Also, I find that running on pavement gives you more feedback about your barefoot running form than you get on, say, grass. Soft surfaces are more forgiving of bad form.

  • Elisa

    Is it true for walking as well?

    • Steven

      Depends on what you’re trying to do, Elisa.

      For walking, it’s really comfy to walk on grass or dirt. And your stride will change significantly if you get on a more unforgiving surface.
      Personally, I like that… it feels like I’m getting my body in better alignment when I’m on hard surfaces and can’t rely on bad form (for walking or running).

  • Daniel Rold

    What scientific study do you need? You only need to study the foot. How it works, what makes it tick. I’m so sick of this over reliance on scientific studies that someone pays for to get a certain result. That fact that someone pays for it should raise some questions. When you learn that muscle spindles send signals; then you learn how the calcaneous, talus, and transverse tarsal joint works; They obviously perform a function. Then let the function happen!!!! Why do you think so many people, even high level athletes have all sorts of motion pattern dysfunction? The foot is the epicenter of neurological stimulation from the environment. LET IT WORK. And podiatrist answer to flat feet is a insert? Did they study the same foot I did? Ridiculous. I have transformed my flat feet that caused shin splints leading to stress fractures into a normal arched foot. Thanks to Nike Free then to Vibrams, then to bare foot running and agility drills.

  • Kepler

    Using scientific methods to prove anecdotal theories would go further to convincing others of the truth in what you are saying than slandering all of Science with ignorant comments.