Sunday, April 10, 2011

"A Brief History of Barefoot Running"

What a great article:

"...Bare feet were not invented in 2009, and have been the footwear of choice for many top and other runners long before the current fashion.

"Same for minimalist shoes. The idea that less weight on your feet helps you go faster is not rocket science, nor a deep secret preserved for centuries by lost tribes. Shoe companies' 2011 'minimalist' models follow a long line. In 1951 Shigeki Tanaka (Japan) won the Boston Marathon in tiny canvas sock-shoes with a separated big toe. In 1953, Roger Bannister's search for perfection and the 4-minute mile led him to a Wimbledon shoemaker called Sandy Law, who custom-made track spikes with uppers of soft, super-light kangaroo skin. I can vouch for it. In 1957, as a young Bannister fan at school in Wimbledon, I had Law make a pair for me....

"...Runners who think about their craft have always been willing to go minimal, as well as learn from people who live close to nature. So we have long been familiar with the Tarahumara Indians. Far from being a hidden unknown tribe, their prowess and their limitations as runners are well-known in the running world. Several of them have been trained and selected to represent Mexico, and their running rituals have been reliably recorded in at least one British mass-circulation newspaper, and American books such as Peter Nabokov's deeply informative Indian Running (1981), required reading for anyone claiming to understand Native American running culture....

"...Runner-coach-scientist-author Bruce Tulloh, who won the European 5,000m championship barefoot on cinders in 1962, visited and studied the Tarahumara in 1971, and wrote fully about them in the magazine of Britain's Observer Sunday newspaper.

"'Those I saw all ran in their huaraches. Their stamina was impressive. I was still in 14:00 shape for 5,000m, and one of their stars, Ramon, in his mid-40s, ran with me for 90 minutes and never took his hat off. I also ran with a younger runner, Madril, whose pulse after a brisk 50 minutes was 10 beats lower than mine (but of course I was not altitude-adjusted),' Tulloh told me.

"Tulloh had been part of scientific research into barefoot running in 1961, conducted by Dr. Griffith Pugh, famous as the medical leader of the mountaineering team that conquered Everest in 1953. Later Pugh did seminal research into altitude training.

"'Dr. Pugh had me run repetition miles, to compare the effect of bare feet, shoes, and shoes with added weight. He collected breath samples.

"'It showed a straight-line relationship between weight of shoes and oxygen cost. At sub-5:00 mile pace, the gain in efficiency with bare feet is 1 percent, which means a 100m advantage in a 10,000m. In actual racing, I found another advantage is that you can accelerate more quickly,' Tulloh said...."

Well, that sounds familiar.

This is how the running establishment will re-embrace barefoot-style running: by claiming they were doing it all along.  Amby Burfoot has shown the way, and others will follow.  From reading this article you might get the impression that Roger Robinson has been beating the drum for barefoot-style running for decades, until Born to Run came along and unfairly stole the limelight.

Well, Mr. Robinson has a website, and if you go there and look for either "barefoot" or "minimalist" you'll find: "Your search returned no documents."  (I presume this will change after he links to his latest piece from his website.)

What McDougall did was re-uncover the fact that barefoot running has a long and illustrious history, and make clear that sneakers are not the only way to run.  This fact had either been forgotten or suppressed by runners like Robinson and Burfoot (depending on how paranoid you are ;), and had complete disappeared from the popular imagination.

Would Robinson ever have written this article without McDougall?  Would Running Times have published it?