A Critical Mass of Naked Runners

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The case for barefoot running seems to have gone mainstream in the past week. Last Thursday, Daniel E. Lieberman, a prominent biological anthropologist at Harvard (he researches how humans, and especially athletes, have evolved), published a study in Nature showing that runners with heavily padded shoes tend to strike on their heels, causing stress-related injuries such as plantar fasciitis and tendinitis. The story was picked up by the Boston Globe, the Daily Beast, and even James Fallows, national correspondent at The Atlantic.

The mounting attention is great—hopefully shoe manufacturers will continue to go light and more and more heel-strikers will reform their knee-busting ways. But this is also an example of how old news can quickly be recycled in these aggregated days. Our Lab Rat, Nick Heil, tried out some of the lightest new kicks, including the amphibious-looking Vibram Five Fingers, for a column last summer.

But the guy who's owned this story from the get go is Christopher McDougall. His excellent book Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, published in May, 2008, clearly spells out how savvy marketing foisted heavy cushioning—and, potentially, heavy injuries—on the running public. McDougall's primary source: Lieberman, the Harvard professor. (Shameless plug: my review of McDougall's book is here.)

It's also interesting that this story is gaining traction while writers take the NFL to task for allowing its players to bludgeon one another. In Malcom Gladwell's article Offensive Play, published last fall in the New Yorker, the author points out that “the better helmets have become … the more athletes have been inclined to play recklessly.” Of course, the injuries you incur while running in cushioned shoes are less debilitating than those caused by a helmet-to-helmet hit, but it's worth pointing out the role “better” technology may play in each. The illusion of safety can be a dangerous thing.  —ABE STREEP


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