A lot has been said about this topic. I have numerous friends with whom I've connected across the world who have chimed in on this "debate." We've all posted tweets, blog posts and articles with our take on the issue. Shoe company executives have even begun to share their thoughts.
On the "pro-shoe" sided of the issue, podiatrists, shoe companies and others claim that the forces and mechanics of running are too much for the bare foot. Even if they're not, they remind us that running barefoot has inherent risk of injury from stepping on rocks or other sharp objects.
On the "pro-barefoot" side of the issue, these runners claim less injury due to a forefoot strike. Many, including myself, have even accused the same podiatrists and shoe companies of promoting shod running primarily for financial gain. If we barefooters get hurt less and buy fewer shoes, that affects their bottom lines.
Justin Owings, owner of Vibram Fivefingers fan site BirthdayShoes.com, recently made a very good point about running in his recent blog post. It's an observation similar to what I've mentioned previously in this space. Justin writes (the bold emphases are his):
In a way, I kind of feel like the two sides are a married couple in a knock-down, drag-out shouting match with each other that all began over who should do the dishes. Any married couple can tell you that those kinds of arguments are never really about the dishes, are they? Let's dig deeper.
"The barefoot running debate is curious. It feels backwards. Most know Occam's Razor: the simplest answer tends to be the best one. What is the simplest answer when it comes to what human beings were meant to put on their feet in order to walk or run? Nothing. We are barefoot by default... Starting from the default human condition, the onus regarding the merits of shoes should be on the shoe companies. But of course it's not. It's the opposite."
I am a barefoot runner only because I first live a barefoot lifestyle. If the weather is at all decent -- and when I'm not injured -- you can find me barefoot around the house, at church, out shopping, attending family gatherings and sometimes even dining out. I live barefoot because it is the most comfortable way to have my feet and is actually quite sanitary and safe. It is just as normal for me to go barefoot as it is for most people to live without gloves on their hands.
Back to the topic at hand, I began running because I wanted to be healthier. I wanted to do something to lose a little weight, be more fit and feel better. I found a wonderful community of runners online and have enjoyed sharing goodwill with them.
Running with "regular" sneakers was never an option. That would be like wanting to become a pianist and putting on gloves every time I sat down to play. The concept never fit because that's not who I am. I don't really think of myself as a "barefoot runner," just as piano players aren't "barehanded pianists." I'm just a runner.
When I look at it from that perspective, the barefoot running debate isn't about running. It's not even about money.
I actually had a conversation with someone who objected to Kate's feet being prominently shown in her avatar (Because I'm not interested in calling anyone out or embarrassing them, let's call this person "Sam"). I asked Sam what issue they had with feet. They ended up repeating four times the same basic sentiment: "I just dont like feet. Plain and simple." That's pretty much as much detail as I got. Now, Sam may have specific reasons that they're not interested in disclosing as to why they have such a problem with others' feet, but nevertheless it's a sentiment that I have heard so many times.
For a part of that body that's not considered "private," -- after all, people go barefoot on TV shows, in magazines and on Web sites -- feet are arguably the most rejected of them all. You don't hear people say, "I just don't like ears. Plain and simple." They don't say that about hair, chins, shoulders, elbows, hands, knees or anything else. There's something about feet. And people's objections about feet aren't even that consistent. For example, someone may say that they "hate" feet, but are perfectly fine with going to the public pool where everybody is barefoot.
Only on rare occasions is going barefoot embraced. This usually happens when somebody goes barefoot for charity, as if seeing someone withstand the torture of going without shoes makes people want to donate money. Weddings are sometimes performed on the beach or in soft grass so that the wedding party can go barefoot as a way of being in tune with nature. Other, isolated times of barefooting are briefly allowed. "How quaint," people think for each occasion. "Ahhhhh."
All right. Snap out of it.
A lot of the arguments against going barefoot in any activity are the same. A prominent idea about feet is that they are sweaty and inherently smell. Some fear catching a disease from the ground/floor into the bottom of their feet. Many people claim that there are broken beer bottles and AIDS-laced syringes just lying around everywhere. The idea of lacking any arch support while going barefoot is troubling to lots of people. I've even had people tell me personally, "You know, it's not good for your back to go barefoot." The list goes on and on.
So the prominent stigmas against going barefoot carry over to running barefoot. It isn't about comparing a heel strike to a forefoot strike. It isn't about avoiding blisters or not losing toenails. It's not about any of the other perfectly good arguments for running unshod. I'd bet you that most runners who reject the idea of barefoot running could not care less about any of that. The decision is made based on the word "barefoot," not the word "running."
I have also personally heard someone reply -- on more than one occasion, actually -- after hearing all the benefits of barefoot running, "I'll stick to wearing my shoes." No pause for personal reflection on whether it could have benefit to them. No challenging of what they "know" about the capability or characteristics of the human feet. Just outright rejection. What's more, these same negative sentiments are reinforced by the podiatrists and shoe company executives who I mentioned earlier.
So where does all this leave us? With a lot of work to do.
We barefoot runners and general barefooters need find ways to better educate the public about feet. We need to become advocates of what, to many, has become a demonized part of the body. Most importantly, we need to do it together. Only then, maybe, will feet get the respect they deserve.
I'm up for the challenge and will soon be making a major announcement with regard to this. I'm very much looking forward to what lies ahead.
Please comment below. I would love to hear your feedback.
(* NOTE: Entry edited Monday, March 8, 2010, to clarify the results of Dr. Lieberman's study. See comments below.)