• Barefoot Economics

    It has been almost a year since I discovered and embraced the joy of barefoot running.  Even as the East Coast braced for another blizzard, I seized the opportunity of a mild El Niño winter day here in the Pacific Northwest to reel off six miles on my lunch hour in the sneakers God gave me.  In the cold and slop, I compromise with minimalist shoes like Vibram Fivefingers and Feelmax Niesas.  Paradoxically — or so it might seem — since I stopped putting layers of cushioning and stabilizing materials between my foot and the ground, recurring overuse injuries to my hamstrings, calves, and knees that have dogged me for years have simply disappeared.  As I near my one year barefoot/minimalist anniversary, I find myself logging thirty to forty miles a week and more on mostly hard, urban surfaces without pain or discomfort in nothing more than moccasins, and often less.

    Like most recent converts to barefoot running, my worldview was tectonically altered by Chris MacDougall’s “Born to Run,” which for me was to fitness what Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” was to food.  Woven in to a ripping good yarn about an ultramarathon duel between the preeminent distance runners of industrial civilization and a reclusive tribe of hard-drinking  aboriginal superathletes from the Copper Canyons of Mexico (spoiler alert — the Indians win) is the compelling observation that modern humans had been running long distances barefoot or close to it for a hundred thousand years before the invention of the modern running shoe in the early 1970s.  Packaged with that observation is the suggestion that the explosion of running-related injuries since that “innovation” might not be a coincidence.

    Granting MacDougall’s thesis, an interesting economic disconnect is apparent.  If running shoes not only fail to prevent injuries, but in fact cause and exacerbate them, then all the money that is spent on them is worse than wasted.  Yet all that spending is counted as positive economic activity in the most influential measure of our nation’s aggregate welfare, gross domestic product.  And the purchase of running shoes is surely just one of a multitude of transactions that count towards domestic product while contributing little to, and perhaps detracting from, actual welfare.

    But snake oil is as old as suckers, and suckers do eventually wise up.  Each scam, fad, or mania, must eventually run its course.  Still, as the proverb says and behavioral economic research shows, there is a sucker born every minute.  So some significant portion of any economy will inevitably be dedicated to the consumption of useless or harmful goods and services.  The gap may be narrowed by consumer protection and education efforts, but it can never be closed.  Knowing this, should maximizing GDP really be the unalloyed objective of economic policy?

    This and other incongruities between GDP and actual welfare have motivated various efforts toward specifying alternative measures of beneficial economic activity for some time.  None has yet gained a consensus among academics, much less policymakers.  But in the meantime, as the miles of cool, springy grass and buttery-smooth concrete caress the densely-packed neurons of the soles of my amazing, durable, perfectly-evolved feet, I know that any measure that fails to account for my priceless euphoria cannot motivate policy that is well-calibrated to encouraging the truly excellent life.

    • Two questions: one, what about various sharp impediments on the ground, do they bother you? And two, although I couldn’t agree more re humans running for thousands of years, I do not think man has been running on concrete for that long. It seems to me that many running injuries result from concrete, because the material does not give at all, unlike any natural surface, and consequently all of the stress is transferred to the human joints. So I guess my question is how do you like running on concrete?

    • Good questions. Just keeping my eyes open has been enough to avoid sharp objects on all but the gnarliest trails. It very quickly becomes second nature, almost as if, I suspect, we are wired for it.
      As for concrete, it’s actually the easiest and most comfortable surface to run on other than grass because it is so smooth and regular. It does not feel harder in any appreciable way than packed earth, and the natural, mid-foot striking barefoot running stride dissipates impact on any surface by pronating to the arch. That’s the theory at least, but the proof is in the pudding. I run almost all my miles on hard, manmade surfaces and have had no issues with discomfort or injury from impact.

    • Two hypotheses: one, while overall rates of injury may be higher with running shoes, the injuries we are most afraid of (rationally or irrationally) may be more likely without running shoes. Maybe the shoes make it more likely that you’ll trip; but less likely that you’ll get tetanus. Furthermore, those members of industrial societies that adopt barefoot running are likely to be those most sure, like you, who think they can avoid sharp objects. I’m completely oblivious; I wouldn’t trust myself.

      Two, running shoes may work as a positional good. (This was certainly the implication of those stories in the 90s that hoodlums were “shooting people for their shoes,” whether those stories had any truth or not.) Extending this idea, people may think a barefoot runner is a bit of an oddball.

      I don’t think anyone actually claims in those terms that GDP should be the sum measure of policy goals – indeed, the idea only gets trotted out for a beating – but it does have certain obvious problems. I think any measure that was precise enough to take into account ideas like “running shoes are snake oil” (if true) would be TOO precise. But we want to incorporate leisure time and household labor, I think. “Guard labor” and positional goods, too, if we can come up with a good way to measure them.

    • @Matthias – Ha! Anybody who knows me would be amused at the suggestion that I am particularly observant or coordinated. But you are right about irrational fears. I was terrified the first time I ventured out au naturale au pied, but have since been surprised how little dangerous stuff there is out there, and how easy it is to avoid.
      As to point two, clearly, there is often utility in goods that is separate from their usefulness in performing their intended function. Even the act of purchasing itself can give great pleasure. But I wonder how much of such second order utility would remain if consumers knew that the purported first order utility was bunk.

    • > As for concrete, it’s actually the easiest and most comfortable surface to run
      > on other than grass because it is so smooth and regular. It does not feel
      > harder in any appreciable way than packed earth


      In fact, concrete is one of the absolute worst surfaces to run on.

      Whatever advantages running barefoot may be giving you over running with shoes, those advantages must be more than negated by running on concrete.


    • Concrete probably is the worst surface you can run on, if you happen to be wearing running shoes. But the hardness of he surface is a matter of near indifference when you are barefoot, because you are not heel striking. Impact is just not an issue. That’s why I am able to run 80% of my mileage barefoot on concrete and asphalt without injury or discomfort.
      Don’t believe me? Check out this NY Times video and blog post about “Born to Run” author Christopher McDougall, who says: “The hard, man-made surfaces are like cream.”

    • Like McDougal’s book, an interesting article and video… but devoid of any science to back up the fact that running on concrete is “like cream” (asphalt by the way is a fine choice for running – barefoot or otherwise – as it is up to 10x softer than concrete). The Tarahumara don’t run on concrete.

      One missed opportunity in the interview was when they saw the “men’s pro race”.

      “After a mile or so we peeled off the loop and caught the men’s pro race at the Fifth Avenue Mile. As the leaders blazed by us, Christopher admired their form. “Look at how lightly they land,” he said, “even at that speed.”

      The author missed a great opportunity to ask Mr. McDougal … “why are none of those pros running barefoot? Or at least with minimalist moccasins?”

      The barefoot running movement would do a better job of advancing their cause if they convinced some world class runners to train, race, win medals, and break records barefoot or in minimalist moccasins … and if didn’t coat every article on their cause with haughty suggestions that shoe wearers are mindless sheep wasting their money on “snake oil”.

    • To clarify, my comment about a “devoid of science” is not in regards to barefoot running in general … just the notion that barefoot running somehow negates the incredibly damaging effects of running on concrete as opposed to other surfaces.

    • I can imagine a clinical trial to address this question. Shoe companies would fund it if they could control the results, and you know what those would be in that case. But who would fund a less obviously conflicted one?

    • The “shoe company conspiracy” is an oft-quoted argument, but I’m not buying it.

      If, say, one of the Nike-sponsored elite runners went to Nike and said, “I think I can reduce my injuries, train harder, win medals, and set records if you’d design me a minimalist running sandal .. and when I do you’ll make millions selling these cheaper to manufacture sandals at huge markups”, Nike would do this so fast it would boggle the mind.

      That this is not happening, and there are no elite runners running in no/minimal footwear and winning major races and breaking records speaks more loudly than any clinical trial ever could.

    • They wouldn’t, but from everything I’ve read about “barefoot” running, most “barefoot” runners log a considerable number, if not a majority, of their miles in some kind of moccasin or minimalist shoe.

    • @Jay – First, the Harvard study I linked to shows that, surfaces being equal, barefoot runners experience less impact than shod runners: “Kinematic and kinetic analyses show that even on hard surfaces, barefoot runners who fore-foot strike generate smaller collision forces than shod rear-foot strikers.”

      Second, elite runners race in flats or track spikes with little or no padding. Even so, as the NYT blog post suggests, they naturally or by training strike in the mid- and forefoot, i.e., precisely the gait that is naturally assumed by barefoot runners. So to the extent they train in padded trainers, they don’t disprove the fact that heel-striking in shoes generates more impact force than forefoot striking regardless of footwear.

      There is no research that supports the claim that padded trainers are injury preventing on any surface. If there were any such benefits, it would be in the interests of shoe companies to demonstrate them. The fact that they have not speaks volumes.

      Finally, I would put to you the claim that the a millimeter or less of rubber or non-shock absorbing coated ballistic cloth makes a significant difference in the impact forces experienced by a runner wearing minimalist footwear. In fact, my experience is that even minimalist footwear increases my tendency to get sloppy and heel-strike by virtue of the decreased sensitivity to irregularities in the running surface. My legs and joints have never felt so fresh and unjarred following a long run as when I have run completely barefoot.

      But I understand that anecdote is not evidence. I hope that the increased prevalence of barefoot running will generate the data to put relative injury rates to the test. For my own part, I know I have never been injury-free running the same mileage on the same routes before I went barefoot/minimal. If you feel the same way about padded trainers, then by all means log the miles in them.

    • Thanks for the reply, Ian. I’m glad to hear that barefoot running has enhanced your enjoyment of a sport we both share a love of.

      I too would love to see more research on the supposed virtues of barefoot running, and hope that indeed more work is done to research injury prevention – whatever the method.

      I would ask again though that when presenting your love of barefoot running you refrain from denigrating those that have made a different choice. Doing so does nothing to strengthen your case, and in fact damages it considerably.

    • @Jay – Please re-read my post. The reference to “snake oil” follows the phrase “Granting MacDougall’s thesis…” My point is only that IF running shoes are snake oil, as he claims, THEN it illustrates an interesting economic point, namely that purchases of snake oil (of whatever kind, and surely there are uncontroversial examples) are counted positively in a widely-used measure of total welfare, while contributing nothing or perhaps even detracting from actual welfare. Barefoot running remains an experiment for me, and I recognize that the jury is still out. My use of a counterfactual to illustrate a point was not intended to be disrespectful to people who choose not to participate in the experiment themselves. I apologize if any misunderstanding caused you offense.