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Is barefoot all it’s cracked up to be?

Recent law suits in the US involving both vibram and adidas are starting to bring ‘the barefoot movement’ under closer scrutiny. I don’t want to get too into the whys and wherefores of the legal action here although my first thoughts are that adidas may be a little hard done by and I’m sure that will come out during proceedings.

My point is that those who have embarked on their barefoot journey have, just as those who buy more structured shoes have done, relied too much on a shoe to change their world. Putting a glove on your feet is not going to make you stronger, teach you to run or make you more flexible. What it will do is make you feel impacts more and make you more reliant on your body to attenuate shock. Some people make that adaptation, some people don’t. Those that don’t, or don’t do it quick enough or do too much, get injured. Exactly the same as other people do in structured running shoes.

Based on what I see day to day, shoes help. People that have no right to, biomechanically, complete marathons. The only help they get is from a shoe and an insole, they don’t do technical, strength or mobility work even when advised to. They just run. They run mile after mile with poor mechanics because their shoes and insoles can reduce rate of change of momentum, improve shock attenuation and make up for lack of flexibility in certain areas. As a strength and conditioning coach, I would obviously like to see physical improvements that will help long term in training and activities of daily living. But the facts remain. Even people with good hip and ankle mobility with adequate glute and core strength and perfect technique need something on their feet to run in, why shouldn’t it be optimised? The only difference is some people are more reliant on their footwear than others.

In my eyes, every system has a certain tolerance to stress. If that tolerance level is exceeded, the system breaks down. In order to prevent injury, you have to increase the system’s ability to tolerate stress. That’s my job as a S&C coach, to reduce the chances of that tolerance level being exceeded. You can’t always do it, external factors like environmental conditions, competitive demands and opposition see to that. But the more tolerant the system it is, the stronger it is to cope with forces placed upon it. If shoes, strapping, pads, insoles or hell, even powerbalance bands help make the athlete more tolerant then I’m in.

Neil Welch

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