Is there a best way to run?

The barefoot running boom has heated up a debate about the best way to run.

Barefoot? Shoes? Barefoot shoes?

Midfoot strike, heel strike, forefoot strike?

In today’s New York Times Online, Gina Kolata (whose writing and name I adore) goes after this question.

Really, you can stop reading after the first sentence of the 2nd paragraph… and since that’s the most important sentence, I’ll just quote it here:

Most of the scientific research is just inadequate to answer these questions

The reasons that the research is inadequate are two-fold:

  1. Not enough research to explore the various aspects of the question
  2. Poorly designed research

I can’t say much about #1 other than to hope that more research is done. But if more research is done poorly, then what’s the point.

So what makes some of the running research, especially the studies that examine barefoot running, so poor? A number of factors:

  1. Bad cohort (the people in the study). Many of the studies solicit “barefoot runners” who’ve never actually run with bare feet. They may have spent some time in Vibram Fivefingers or, worse, in Nike Free… but wearing those is not the same as being barefoot (as many readers of this blog can attest). Many of the studies have too few runners. Many of the studies have runners that are, say, between the ages of 18-22 and on the college cross-country team (they’re not typical runners). And if the number of runners in the test is small enough, it may be hard to extrapolate from their results.
  2. Missing factors. Many of the studies will look at one aspect of gait and ignore many others, and then try to conclude something about running mechanics. Rodger Kram’s recent study on cushioning, for example, doesn’t look at foot placement (overstriding or not), doesn’t consider weight (which can effect the value of cushioning), type of cushioning, etc. I’m not saying that it’s even possible to design a study that accounts for all these factors, but when you isolate things  too much, it’s hard to draw a useful conclusion… though everyone around you will draw it and then fight to the death defending or attacking it.
  3. Arbitrary variables. Many studies are done with runners on treadmills running at a fixed pace. The obvious question: is running on a treadmill identical to running on a track? Not in my experience. Also, is, say, 5 minute/mile pace my usual pace? We know that if you increase your cadence without increasing your speed, you can reduce force on your body and decrease the amount of time you spend on the ground… so by controlling one variable, you could be affecting the results of the study.

Suffice it to say, I’m always glad when the media talk about running, and barefoot running in particular. But I find it unsatisfying when they merely regurgitate the “results” of a study without telling the reader whether the study is worth considering in the first place.

Then there’s the straw man problem, which is when you make up a person (complete with opinions) and then argue with that fictional person. There’s a lot of that going on. Many barefoot writers (including myself, Pete Larson, Bill Katovsky, Mark Cucuzzella) have noticed that individual differences may be more important than “one right way” to do things, and that it’s hard to get useful data by looking at genetic freaks (like Olympians). Yet the media loves to present these studies, and studies of studies, as if there’s no reasonable thinking on either side of the fence. Not true.

Again, as the article said up top: Most of the scientific research is just inadequate to answer these questions. Let’s hope that changes.

  • Lena

    What I find odd about her article is that it focuses on efficiency and speed. I’m sure that’s relevant to those who compete at elite levels, but I think the question of the relationship between foot strike style and injury would be a lot more interesting to the average runner. That’s what I’d like to see good studies on.

  • I run barefoot, sometimes with huaraches. I’m not a pro, but after teaching myself how to run a half marathon in 6 months, I believe that it’s all about barefoot running technique/style, not what kind of shoes you have on. It’s the posture, running economy, falling forward, landing under your body, etc that keeps you from injuries.

  • You are correct Kowsik, it is about running gently through improved form. Getting rid of the the raised heels and spongey soles helps (makes) you develop that improved form.
    I’m happily running half-marathon distance in my Xero Shoes, however recently I tried running up the road in an old pair of Asics Kayanos and imediately noticed how the raised heel seemed to be moving me back to a heel strike (after almost a year of forefoot striking). The effect of the shoes on my gait was quite remarkable.

  • bill

    I think it’s true that individual differences may be more important than “one right way to run.” It does us a disservice to use Olympians as the primary model. They represent such a small percentage of the people running today. It’s important to understand the basic principles behind running barefoot, but ultimately it’s up to each individual to discover how that translates to their body type. For me that’s where the real fun and adventure lies. It’s all about self discovery.