crutchesThe mainstream media’s love affair with barefoot running was short-lived. Coinciding with the success of Born to Run, when chronically injured runners began kicking off their coffin-like kicks, and going barefoot or minimalist instead, there were a number of enthusiastic articles and books about the most significant development in running shoes since Nike’s Waffle Trainer. And despite their oddity (or maybe because of it), the popularity of Vibram FiveFingers only reinforced the notion that something was seriously and commercially afoot in the athletic footwear trade.  Then came the anecdotal stories breathlessly reported in places like The New York Times that called attention to the increasing number of runners’ visits to podiatrists and orthopedic sports specialists with complaints about their newly aching feet.  Many of these X-ray-bound runners had been wearing FiveFingers or other minimalist brands, and had not taken the time to relearn running technique or make a gradual transition to less shoe.  Their feet paid the price.

Now judging from the early reports that emerged from the Outdoor Retail Show in Salt Lake City several weeks ago, less shoe is on the way out. More shoe is back. But with a difference: many models from the 2014 class of running shoes are like minimalism on steroids. They are zero-drop and thickly cushioned. Call it the Hoka phenomenon. It’s a bigger-is-better, beefed-up trend fueled in large part by ultra runners who want that extra cushion for pushin’ past mile 50. But most runners aren’t billy goats. They are recreational runners, ones who want to go sub two hours in a half-marathon, or finish a marathon.

So it comes as little surprise that the media continue to enjoy bashing barefoot and minimalism. Not a month seems to go by when New York Times health and fitness reporter Gretchen Reynolds won’t blog about the latest published footwear study that seeks to question, if not undermine the biomechanical benefits of going barefoot or using non-heelstriking footwear. Of course, these university studies usually involved less than two dozen runners on treadmills (and which represents an unrealistic example of both running and runners.). So much for footwear science.

In the following essay, “Ten Steps to Writing a Popular Barefoot Running Article,” which originally appeared on Xero Shoe’s website,  the author and company founder Steven Sashen has given us a provocative rebuttal to a recent Men’s Health feature article headlined “Barefoot Running Stumbles.” In an email sent to me and others at the NRC, Steven wrote, “Not surprisingly, the Men’s Health article does the same-ole, same-ole of conflating minimalist with barefoot, ignoring form, and making unsupported hyperbolic statements about the massive increase in injuries that barefoot causes (ignoring, of course, the myriad people who cure themselves of injuries once they ditch their kicks).” –Bill Katovsky


Ten Steps to Writing a Popular Barefoot Running Article

by Steven Sashen

The recent “Special Report” in Men’s Health about barefoot running has inspired me to help you make a career change.You, too, can write an article about barefoot running that will appear in a major newpaper, magazine, or television show, if you do the following ten steps.

Screen shot 2013-08-21 at 11.02.55 PM1.   Open with a headline suggesting that barefoot running is evil or dangerous. Ideally, use some pun about feet, or running that if the reader only saw the title, would suggest that there’s no value in ever running in your bare feet.  Even if your article ultimately supports barefoot running, make sure the headline suggests that taking off your shoes could lead to injury, illness, and tax audits.

2.  Follow with a sub-headline that includes a “straw man argument” about the perils of not wearing $150 running shoes. A straw man argument is one where you introduce a position that nobody holds, or nobody of any import holds, and then attack that position. For example, I don’t know of any barefoot running authors or coaches that say “You’ll run faster in bare feet,” so the straw man argument is to say that barefooters make that claim, and then attack that claim.  Similarly, a recent survey I did with barefoot coaches showed that none of us ever suggested that running bare footed was more efficient, yet many articles and even university research is now “debunking” a claim that was never made.

3.    Start with a story about someone who switched to barefoot running and got injured, and then claim that it was being barefoot that caused the injury. Ignore that 50% of runners and 80% of marathoners get injured every year.

4.    Conflate “minimalist” running with “barefoot running” and talk as if a zero-drop pair of shoes with 1″ of foam is the same as running in your bare feet. Also, ignore that most “minimalist shoes” are about as minimalist as a pair of stilts. And forget that prior to 45 years ago, when the first running shoe was invented and sold, all shoes were minimalist.

5.    Quote doctors who say they’re seeing more and more patients who are injured due to running barefoot. Make sure these doctors have never run barefoot in their lives.

6.    Ignore statistics: Doctors will see more patients with injuries when more people are trying something (doctors made the same claims 40 years ago when running shoes became popular and you can find articles saying that running is bad for you!). Doctors don’t see patients who aren’t having problems.

7.    Don’t explore the doctor’s statements too closely so you don’t have to discover that these same doctors typically don’t ask, “Are you running barefoot or in minimalist footwear,” nor do they say, “Let’s take a video and see if your running form could be a problem.”

Screen shot 2013-08-25 at 4.33.04 AM8.    Don’t include any stories from the myriad people who’ve taken off their shoes, switched to barefoot, and been able to run pain-free for the first time in years. Definitely don’t include stories from elderly people who have regained their balance once got out of orthopedic shoes and started using their feet again.

9.    Include some pro-barefoot info, but don’t be too pro-barefoot. Keep the pro-barefoot info until later in the article so that if people stop reading they’ll be left with the horror stories of running without motion controlled shoes.

10.    Ultimately, recommend minimalist shoes so that you don’t anger footwear ad-buying companies. Suggest that switching to barefoot will be an arduous, massively time-consuming process that, maybe, will have some benefits… but probably not.

To be fair, the Men’s Health article is better than some. It does include some info about transitioning, even though it succumbs to the idea that you need to get a lot stronger, rather than focusing on using less effort/energy.

And, I understand that if you want to sell magazines, television time, or eyeballs, it’s helpful to be controversial. But there are ways to be controversial that inspire conversation and investigation, and ways to be controversial that encourages less thinking and reason. Even though, when considered in its entirety, the Men’s Health article isn’t really anti-barefoot, I’m willing to bet that I’ll get emails and calls from people who only read the anti-barefoot headline and first page and tell me, with a certain better-than-though feeling, “Well Men’s Health said being barefoot is bad for you!”