The Barefoot and Minimalist Running Shoe Debate
Article by Dorcas Sholanke
About the Author – Dorcas is a Senior Podiatrist practicing in Singapore. Dorcas is well practiced in the management of musculoskeletal conditions of the foot and ankle and has worked with many of Singapore’s most prominent Orthopedic and Sports Physicians.
I treat a wide range of runners in my clinic on a daily basis. From weekend warriors to ultra-marathoners, everyone has a preference when it comes to their running shoes and most have a theory on why their chosen shoes work for them. Often there is good logic involved in their reasoning but with so much available on the market, runners can get swayed by clever marketing gimmicks. Buying the wrong shoes can easily result in associated injuries down the line.
You may have noticed that more and more types of running shoes are available and wondered what brought about this influx of products.
In 1960, Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila ran the Olympic Marathon in Rome. He shocked the world when he broke the world record and won the Olympic Gold Medal barefoot. This is, undoubtedly, the most influential barefoot running victory of all time. Over the years other marathon runners such as Bruce Tulloh, Shivnath Singh and Zola Budd also received acclaim running barefoot. Professional runners were racing without traditional running shoes and the industry was starting to take note.
The Tarahumara Indians have also played their part in the running footwear revolution. This Native American population of Northwest Mexico is renowned for being able to run long distances barefoot or with very thin lightweight sandals. It was reported that the Tarahumara Indians ran without getting injuries and they were living long, healthy lives.
Major players in the running footwear industry started to question previously-recognised theory that cushioned shoes were best for running and we soon started to see ‘Vibram Five Fingers’ and minimalist shoes on the market. While this seems like a market reaction to evolving logic, there are some inherent flaws in the logic presented.
In particular, much of the information often recited in the running shoes debate is anecdotal. For instance, Abebe Bikila only ran barefoot because he didn’t have his favoured running shoes on the day and later he beat his barefoot world record wearing running shoes. The Tarahumara Indians are a genetically isolated tribe who are very light and run from a young age into their senior life on varied terrain. While barefoot marathon runners and Tarahumara Indians may be experiencing great results, they are very different from the average runners that are shopping in the mall.