ARTICLE: Barefoot running–the Black Swan


“The jury is out on bare foot running”, was one comment we heard in a professional context not too long ago. This statement is an example of a fallacy of formal logic called “the argument from incredulity”. It is the same as saying “the existing paradigm of running, that we need cushioned hi-tech runners to run at high performance and injury free, is true because it has not been proven false.”

This is a common stand-point today because it relates to two other logical fallacies that sneak into the way most of us think: the fallacy of lack of imagination (“I cannot imagine running shoes are not needed, so they must be”) or the fallacy of lack of self-knowing (“If it could be done, I would be able to do it. I cannot, so it must be false.”). When it comes to barefoot running the “appeal to fear” argument also arises regularly – e.g. “Either shod running or bare foot running is the best way to run. Bare foot running is frightening. Therefore shod running is best.”

For and against – the right separation?

Running magazines often setup an “advocates” versus “opponents” scenario on bare foot/minimalist running and while this makes fun reading it gives the mistaken impression that there is an argument “for” and “against” barefoot running. But what’s forgotten is “what’s the question being asked?”

I believe the root cause for most of the people opposed to the running bare foot arises from a combination of incredulity, lack of imagination and fear but that the argument against bare foot running is basically dead because it has been defeated by the “Black Swan” phenomenon.

If your theory is that all swans are white, we know that it only takes one black swan to disprove that theory. If your theory is that we should not run bare foot or that it cannot be done successfully, then it takes only one person doing so to disprove it. Now we have thousands of generations of humans running barefoot on all terrains to disprove it so we might be left to say only that “it’s impossible for a modern human. “

This has been disproved too through the heroics of people like Bekele, Tulloh and Zola (at the elite level) or even my own ability to turn from fully compromised, badly injured runner to being able to run long distance bare foot on hard modern surfaces with no ill effects. After all, by any meaningful standards I would have been an extremely poor candidate: scored 12 out of 21 in a functional movement screen, large injury history, poor sports background (none barefoot) and general history of performing poorly in all tasks related to physical skills.

The argument from fear

A common rephrase of the anti-barefoot argument is “If you race barefoot (or in barefoot technology footwear), you’ll get hurt.” Yet people have done this before and are doing it now. This is where I advocate a wake-up call – since we know it is possible, we can infer that it is possible for everyone. Since not everyone is able to do this (indeed a minority is), instead of concluding that barefoot running is dangerous/not feasible, I suggest we conclude based on the evidence that it is possible and feasible under the right circumstances.

ChampionsEverywhere know from our own experience that you fail in your transition to run in barefoot technology footwear or barefoot if you do not possess the right skill level. You will not possess the right skill level if you lack the proper education, discipline and consistency to rehabilitate yourself into a natural runner (restore your natural hardware/software – something many traditional experts consider impossible, yet we see it every day).

This means that when you say “the jury is out on bare foot running” or “you need shod runner to race”, what you are in reality saying is “I do not have the imagination/skill level/confidence/discipline or all of the afore-mentioned to run barefoot or to race without shod runners.” There is nothing wrong with this admission, but it takes swallowing a bit of personal pride – it it easier to say “the jury is out”. I will posit that this argument comes from a sense of ego and my suggestion is to swallow it. It is not an easy journey. There is no defeat in accepting that you do not have the commitment to make the transition but we should not criticise the cure because we are afraid to undertake it while others are not, even when the efforts of those others seem odd to us or threatening to our own egos. This is no different from the person yelling “funny jokes” at runners because they are secretly insecure about their own lack of discipline to pursue meaningful activity.

Change and loss of expertise

If fear is not the problem, then it is resistance to change which again comes back to the argument from fear. What we know today is comfortable. It is all that exists in our world. If we perceive ourselves as experts on running and this new information challenges the knowledge that we base this self-image on, then we will resist it as it makes us feel like novices again. However, accepting the need to constantly update your area of expertise is the hallmark of a true master over the pretender and the charlatan. The true master of his craft tests propositions that are new to him, even when he feels there is a risk it will rip the foundation under his existing expertise and perhaps his entire professional practice. This is simply progress. The true master emerges on the other side ahead of the competition, instead of fearing he will be left behind. Staying still is often the only fear of these individuals.

Simply put – we have practical evidence that even modern runners with poor movement skills and severe hardware problems can be fully rehabilitated to run bare foot. There is good scientific evidence emerging to support it, but we do not really need it, and there is overwhelming evidence in the theory of foot mechanics and evolutionary medicine that our proper movement patterns depend on a free moving foot.

Same solutions to same problems…

Through Tony Riddle, we also know the method by which a modern runner can walk this path and we know that it can be learned by anyone with the proper dedication. So let us stop the “shod versus barefoot” debate and instead focus on “who is willing to change their technique enough that they no longer need to rely on magic bullets” and “who is not”, because they are the two true camps of this debate. If there are any failures in transition, it is not a question to turn back to the same shoes and methods that failed us, but to refine running technique teaching methods. As Einstein said : “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” and it is the very thinking behind traditional muscle-focused strength and conditioning, hi-tech footwear and a view of human life and movement detached from any understanding of the natural life which has created today’s injury crisis.

The educations, industries and institutions who fostered these errors will keep trying to sell us variations on old themes but do not be fooled – it is, to borrow a Danish term, simply an exercise of “putting make-up on a corpse”. These institutions and industries will not lead a change that will rock their own cores, so do not look for leadership there, they will follow only once the paradigm shift is completed. Radical change in the way we approach rehabilitation – the change needed to dismantle the old paradigm, is coming from the very same place these changes have always come from – from the fringes.

That’s my call to arms for the day – be part of the change, not the established group-think.You do not have to run bare foot every day but restoring your natural skill and your natural foot mechanics is the long-term solution to today’s injury crisis. The hi-tech runners are the fad, the gimmick, that we should stay wary off and consider only as a quick fix for those unwilling to undertake the disciplined work to get out of them. Or perhaps the jury is just out on shod running shoes?