It seems like barefoot running is having its cultural moment now; it’s crossing over into the mainstream. Articles pop up about it in the news and runners I know (and even runners I don’t, on email lists) have started touting its benefits. When I started wearing barefoot Vibrams a few years ago, none of that had happened; it was seen as a fringe movement, based on questionable science. There were a few blogs dedicated to it when the first articles about the ‘new barefoot research’ started to trickle out, but they didn’t have much credibility.
I read those articles, thought they sounded pretty persuasive, and then wondered if they could help me out with the running issues I’d had. I’d experienced consistent problems with knee pain, even though I wore regulations Asics and rested every other day. Almost as soon as I switched, the pain stopped (a common theme among barefoot converts – nothing convinces quite like a full stop to physical pain). Even if I’d never read a single article about it, the cessation of my knee pain probably would have been enough to make me a barefoot runner for life; in my case, it meant I was able to run 2x as often as I could before, a huge improvement for a runner.
Once people saw me wearing the barefoot Vibram shoes (which, in their defense, are very eye-catching), I became a magnet for questions about it. I’d say that it had helped me with my pain, but people would look at me doubtfully. Then I would say there’s been some evidence for it, back when a few researchers attached to university hospitals were saying it was a good idea. People would shrug and say, well, what do they know; some researcher in Wisconsin says it’s a good idea, that doesn’t prove anything. Now there’s an article in Nature about it, and two Harvard profs in an article about the Nature piece talking it up to the skies.
While that’s still not proof, the bar of support has been raised a lot higher. If research like this continues to pour out, then, at some point, I would expect barefoot running to start becoming the conventional wisdom, probably in this form: run in running shoes most of the time, but run barefoot if you can every so often, to strengthen the muscles of your legs. At that point it will have come full circle; barefoot running will be on the inside looking out, instead of the other way around. I still feel a little nostalgia for the old days, though, when nobody knew about it, and going barefoot (or near-barefoot, to be accurate) was seen as this bold but nutty choice. As the cliche goes, I was doing it back when it wasn’t cool…
All this makes me think of a story about Nike from a few years ago. When barefoot running was a sleepy little corner of the running world, the company debuted its barefoot running line. Articles started to circulate about this small band of researchers at Nike, who had been given their own little corner at the company to promote this new discovery, the benefits of barefoot running. They’d devised a line of shoes to go with it, and when they spoke in their interviews, they sounded really, really, really gung-ho about it.
When I read the ad copy for it on their website, I was surprised. It was very strongly worded, almost unimaginably so, for the time: the gist of it was, ”Science has shown that barefoot running is the best kind of running for you…’ Then they went into the biomechanics of it, and how barefoot shoes gave your foot a greater range of motion and really created the best possible alignment for your foot; they had pictures and diagrams and everything. They had the courage of their convictions, and then some; if I’d promoted barefoot running with the same zeal they did, people would have thought I’d drunk the Kool-Aid. And yet they were Nike, the biggest manufacturer of your standard thickly cushioned running shoes in the world.
At the time, I read it and looked at the Nike url and read it again and thought, err, what does this say about Nike’s other shoes? It was so strongly worded that you noticed the discrepancy between the ad copy and the shoes they were selling (which are still being sold as Nike’s barefoot line): even the ‘most barefoot’ shoe didn’t look particularly barefoot, at least as compared to something like a Vibram. I believe, now, that they may have been testing the waters, trying with these ‘early’ barefoot shoes to drum up support for Nike barefoots, which then might translate into a more daring barefoot line. It sounded almost like someone from one of those wild-eyed barefoot blogs had infiltrated Nike and was now posting at will, shoe marketing be damned.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought that. At a later date (1.5 years ago, maybe) I went to try and look it up, and couldn’t find a single trace of it. The barefoot line is still there, of course, but the ad copy has been watered down and turned into mush; it’s not even recognizable, compared to its original form. Trying to find it online now is like trying to find evidence of Gatorade’s ‘Is it in you?’ Tiger Woods campaign – it’s been scrubbed from the memory banks, as if it never happened.
When I google Nike barefoot running now, I get this blog post on Nike’s site that clearly toes the company line – barefoot’s nice, now buy some Nike’s that can protect your foot and give you optimal support, etc. At the time I saw the original articles, I thought this was part of some smooth (if confusing) corporate roll-out, but now I have to give those original researchers more credit. They really were trying to do something new and revolutionary, especially when you consider the company they were working inside. I guess it had to end, and eventually, it did: I imagine that their venture was a lot more controversial inside Nike than I thought, and when the sales didn’t materialize, they were reined in, and their promotional material was canned.
Now, looking back, I think they were ahead of their time. It took a little while for the research about barefoot running to start to sink in to the popular consciousness, and cross over into sales. One day, the writing they did may become the conventional wisdom, but when they were writing, it was just a little too insanely great. So, to the anonymous (and probably deep-sixed) researchers at Nike HQ, here’s to you – for being bold and crazy, even when it ultimately fails.