It will be interesting to see if the barefoot and "minimalist" running shoe phenomenon turns out to be a fad. My guess is that it won't, and that in some ways, for some runners, it will be a part of our running gear for the future. But not everything about this phenomenon adds up. With the aid of a half-century's hindsight, here's my belated view of where we're going with this.
I say "belated" because I see that a lot of the impetus for this phenomenon came from the huge popularity of Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run, which I admit I did not read until quite recently. McDougall recounts the story of the barefoot-running or minimalist-sandals-running Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's remote Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyons), and then spins off into the history of the modern running shoe. His basic messages are (1) that the Tarahumara are the greatest runners in the world by far, and (2) that the modern running shoe is a terrible thing, ignorantly designed and cynically marketed for profit at the expense of thousands of unnecessarily injured runners, including McDougall.
I'm a little embarrassed to be reacting so belatedly, because I may be the most experienced long-distance runner in America (is there anyone else out there who has run competitively for 54 consecutive years?) and my experience has incuded (1) fairly good knowledge of the Tarahumara, and (2) fairly extensive familiarity with the history of the modern running shoe. In 1977, as the founding editor of Running Times magazine, I published three articles about the Tarahumara, and in 1984 a fourth article--shortly before the first scientific articles on the "Running Man" theory of human evolution were published.. And what our articles made clear is that while the Tarahumara are indeed amazing, they are not uniquely amazing. What made them remarkable was not that their best runners were "superathletes," as suggested by the subtitle of McDougall's book, but that everyone in their society runs. We of the USA have superathletes too (as McDougall eventually acknowledges), but we also have a huge number of people who are sadly sendentary and soft.
In the way he starts his story, suggesting that there 's a kind of god-like superhuman out there in the canyons somewhere, McDougall is over the top, as I'll discuss in a forthcoming post devoted specifically to reviewing his book. (And by the way, I won't totally trash the book, because in some respects it is really good.) And as for the origins and future of the modern running shoe--well, I think McDougall is just plain wrong. At Running Times, I published numerous independent reviews (by sports podiatrists and test runners) of running shoes from all the manufacturers--Adidas, Tiger (later Asics), New Balance, Nike, Etonic, Saucony, Brooks, Lydiard, Hi-Tec, Reebok, Turntec, Puma, and a few others. Over the years, we got feedback from hundreds of experts on biomechanics, anatomy, sports inuries, etc., and I don't think they could all have been as blindered as Born to Run suggests.
McDougall writes that the modern running shoe was invented by Nike's co-founder Bill Bowerman in 1972, and that Bowerman didn't know diddly about running. Which is a little like saying Dwight Eisenhower didn't know diddly about war. His implication seems to be that until Bowerman came along, all running shoes were what we'd now call minimalist. The new "modern" shoes introduced cushioning, pronation control, and more rubber under the heel, etc. McDougall's assessment is that these new developments were big mistakes. I disagree. Minimalist-shoe or barefoot running may be great for some people, but for others those modern shoes he disparages were a godsend.
I ran in my first pair of modern running shoes before McDougall was born, and long before Nike existed, so those shoes couldn't have been invented by Nike! (The waffle sole, yes, but the enhanced cushioning and stability, no.) I had started running cross country at Westfield (New Jersey) Senior High School in 1956, and all the kids on my team were given the standard distance-running shoes of that era--low-cut, black canvas-top shoes with no cushioning and only a small, narrow outsole under the heel. They were what we'd now call minimalist. But then I heard about the new kind of running shoe that some of the top runners were wearing, that you could get from a company called Adidas. I couldn't find a store anywhere in New Jersey that sold them, but I heard that you could get them at a place called Carlson Import Shoe Co, in New York City. I caught a train to New York and found the company in a dingy, second-story walk-up in lower Manhattan. There wasn't even a sign on the street. The shoes I bought were green and white, with kangaroo-skin uppers (later made illegal), good cushioning, and nice support in the heel. They fit me like kid gloves. They were magic, and I wish I still had them. I went from 7th man on my team to 7th in the state championship.
The thing is, those Adidas shoes were a huge improvement, at least for me, over the canvas flats. Today, I see tens of thousands of runners (many of them fairly new to the sport) going in the opposite direction, swept up in the thrall of McDougall's "naked tour" and the romance of the myth of the barefoot Tarahumara, denouncing the shoes of the past four decades as rip-offs. And I wonder if the shoe manufacturers, who have responded by offering lots of new minimalist models, are being swept up a little too easily themselves.
It's going to take me a while to sort this all out (and to learn more about the "barefoot debate"), but my present inclination is to think a lot of runners may have overreacted to the romance of the Born-to-Run cult. Philosophically, I like the idea of taking a cue from our ancient ancestors. (We need to do that in a lot of ways beyond just how we decide on footwear, as I discuss on the website http://www.willhumansendure.com/.) I think the science of the Running Man theory is sound. But civilization has subjected us to 10,000 years of cultural intervention and breeding that have separated us from our origins so drastically that it's unrealistic to think we can simply throw off our shoes and run free. Some can, but a lot of us can't. If you're starting to run at age 30 or 40 and have spent three or four decades letting your feet be carried around in rigid plastic or leather coffins on smooth floors or pavement, the muscles, tendons, and bones in your feet may retain very little of the strength and resilience our ancient ancestors had--or that today's Tarahumara still have. You may be better off doing what I did when I got those green-and-white Adidas. That was 52 years ago, and I'm still running strong. I have never bothered with shoes that cost $100 or more (McDougall is more on target in suggesting that buying one of the more expensive models can be a fool's errand), and for the past few years I've been happy with fairly basic Saucony or Asics models priced around $60 to $80, which have the same basic features those magical Adidas shoes had half a century ago. I hope the shoe companies keep making shoes like that for people like me. And if Chris McDougall would like to set up another "greatest race the world has never seen" with some of the over-70-year-old Tarahumara included, those guys can run in their sandals and I'll be there in my Sauconys. And I think I'll do pretty well.