Letters to The Times, barefoot running.

In June 2016, The Times ran a provocative article by Oliver Moody on the advantages, or otherwise, of barefoot running.  Several letters followed, including one by me.

Bad news for barefoot fanatics: running shoes are rocket fuel
Oliver Moody, Science Correspondent
June 15 2016, 12:01am, The Times.


Zola Budd competed for Great Britain in the 1984 LA Olympics barefoot.  BOB THOMAS/GETTY IMAGES

In the mid-1980s a teenager from South Africa changed the art of running.  Not only did Zola Budd set world records in the women’s 3,000m (indoor) and 5,000m and win two consecutive world cross-country titles by the age of 20 but she did it all without any trainers on.

Today, thousands of British runners follow in her bare footsteps.  The human foot is a masterwork of evolution, they argue; wrapping it up in rubber can only lead to injuries and feeble ankles.
 A study suggests that barefoot running may not be quite the joyful return to nature it is cracked up to be. Scientists in Australia have found that although trainers cramp the foot’s natural springiness they make up for it by driving the muscles to work harder.

Over the 40 years since the first modern running shoes came on to the market injury rates have scarcely budged.  Critics claim that the human race evolved to lope around the savannah with naked feet and that putting a cushion between our soles and the ground hampers our gait.

Some studies indicate that trainer-shod feet tend to shift our balance slightly backwards and make it harder to exploit the inherent bounciness of our arches.  Other academics think that relying on shoes leads to weaker ankle muscles that are more vulnerable to the stress of training on hard surfaces over long distances.

Researchers at the University of Queensland have allayed many of those fears with a comprehensive experiment looking at how runners adapt to both styles.  They recruited 16 amateur athletes — nine men around the age of 24 and seven women of about 19 — who were used to running in trainers.

The scientists put reflective stickers on various parts of the participants’ feet and lower legs and used a 3D camera to obtain a detailed picture of what happened as they ran on a treadmill that registered how much force was falling on it.

They then injected the runners’ right feet with tiny needles that recorded electrical activity in two important muscles, the abductor hallucis — which runs from the heel along the inner side of the foot to the base of the big toe — and the flexor digitorum brevis, which controls the other four toes from the sole.

The researchers also stuck surface electrodes onto the skin over two other muscles, the soleus and the medial gastrocnemius.

After three minutes’ warm-up the athletes ran about 20 strides in a pair of Asics trainers and a further 20 with bare feet.  Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society: Interface, the scientists said that the foot muscles were all at least 50 per cent more active when the runners were wearing trainers.

Their arches were also about a quarter less springy but the shoes appeared to make up for this by acting as a sort of elastic extension.

There were, however, some hints that barefoot runners may be on to something, if only in a small way.  Running with naked feet gave the participants about 7 per cent more propulsive force and made them land very slightly further forward towards the balls of their feet.

The scientists said that the human foot was highly adaptable and that trainers actually made muscles work harder.  “It seems that running shoes act as an additional spring in series with the foot,” they wrote.

Perhaps Ms Budd would agree: she converted to trainers in the later stages of her career and now works for a company that sells running shoes.

BORN TO RUN  (16 June)
Sir, The research by scientists at the University of Queensland on running shoes v bare feet is admirable, though complicated, and leaves no doubt that you had better wear trainers (“Bad news for barefoot fanatics: running shoes are rocket fuel”, June 15).

Not for a moment would I have wished ever to have run barefoot in any track race.  For the four-minute mile, a special craftsman made my running shoes wafer-thin, and even then I imagined by whittling down the spikes that morning that there might be a scintilla of an advantage (I used the grindstone in the physiology department of St Mary’s Hospital in London to do this).

But oh, the splendour of running barefoot across the sand on the shore as a boy has never left me.  The opening shots of Chariots of Fire reminded a weary world that not everything can be analysed.

RUN FOR FUN  (17 June)
Sir, You report (June 15, and letter from Sir Roger Bannister, June 16) on the apparent joys and advantages of barefoot running.  I am 70 next year and, for reasons of fun and fitness, I have started running again, something I have not done seriously since my school days.  I wear trainers not on comfy treadmills but on hard roads and rough mountain trails.  This past weekend I completed a wild and very muddy Wolf Run.  Come on you barefoot advocates, join me over such terrains without some sort of sensible footwear, I dare you!
Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire

Sir, Knowing that I would be competing in inter-grammar school sports my parents bought me a pair of spiked running shoes (letters, June 16 & 17).  At my own school’s sports’ day I was told in no uncertain terms to remove them as they would give me a distinct advantage. 

In protest I ran barefoot and won the high hurdles, 100 yards and 220 yards races.  The head was furious; my house rejoiced!
Lytham St Annes, Lancs

Sir, Sir Roger Bannister (“Born to run”, letter, June 16) can recreate the joy of running barefoot on sand by competing in the next modern Nemean Games in the 2,000-year-old stadium in the Greek Peloponnese.  Like the Olympics, the event is held every four years, but the Nemean Games are open to all, however old or unfit.  I celebrated my 75th year by taking part (the oldest in my group was 83), running the 90 metres barefoot, as the rules decree, and wearing a Greek tunic.  I loved it.  Sir Roger will have to wait until 2020 for his run but I bet he won’t be the oldest participant: the oldest man this year was 89 and in 2012 a 100-year-old woman took part.
Seaton, Devon

Sir, I’m surprised that in all the correspondence so far (letters, June 16, 17 & 18), no mention has been made of Bruce Tulloh, who regularly ran barefoot and broke the four-minute mile on grass in New Zealand without shoes.  He was the Mo Farah of his day and regularly represented Great Britain in international athletics meetings.  He beat me on more than one occasion, but he wouldn’t have known it because I was one of a cast of hundreds.
Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria

Sir, The research paper from the University of Queensland (report, June 15, and letters, June 16, 20 & 21) merely suggested that running in shoes was more effective over 20 strides.  In the early 1960s I undertook an experiment under Dr Griffith Pugh (the physiologist of Everest fame).  We found that running in bare feet was at least 1 per cent more efficient, in terms of oxygen cost, than running in lightweight shoes.

The human foot has evolved to run— but not on tarmac!  When I ran from Los Angeles to New York, I wore shoes; when I ran a sub-four minute mile, I wore spikes, but when running on a track, on cinders, on the beach or on grass, as I did this morning, I run in bare feet.  It’s more fun.
Marlborough, Wilts