The Barefoot Running Injury Epidemic

Not Born to Run

Wait: Did Koch just say “whether running is even appropriate for a person”? Is he suggesting that not all humans are, in fact, born to run?

Here we arrive at the heart of the matter. Fascinating recent research by Daniel Lieberman and other evolutionary biologists has popularized the notion that our species is specially designed for distance running. While the point that human beings are better suited to distance running than the hominid and ape species preceding us in the descent of man is difficult to contradict, it is quite obviously not the case that every human individual is meant to run.

Consider this: Every cheetah is a world-class sprinter. No exceptions. By contrast, the degree of interindividual variation in distance running ability in the human population is incredibly vast. There are no Jim Hogarty’s in the Cheetah world. Jim Hogarty (real name disguised to protect his dignity) was a kid I went to elementary school with who effectively couldn’t run a step. There was nothing really wrong with him. He was just giant and knock-kneed and flatfooted and running was terribly uncomfortable for him. There are millions of Jim Fogarty’s out there, and millions of others who have the same trouble with running to lesser degrees.

That’s because humans really are not born for distance running in the same way that cheetahs are born for sprinting. Evolutionary biologists other than Daniel Lieberman will tell you that humans are born generalists more than we are born specialists in endurance running or anything else. A natural consequence of this “jack of all trades, master of none” design is that there are different types of individual specialists within the total human population. Some of us are strong, others weak. Some of us have great hand-eye coordination, others don’t. Some of us can be great marathon runners, others can’t run a step.

The romantic vision of an Edenic primitive humanity in which everyone ran like Kenenisa Bekele is complete hokum. Endurance running was very likely only ever a specialization of the few, exactly as it is today.

Hence, “If we can say that everyone is built to run barefoot we can say that everyone is built to fly a fighter jet without glasses,” says Pribut. “We don’t all have 20/20 vision.”

But most of us do have 20/20 vision with glasses. Similarly, says Pribut, “There are more people who can run because of shoes than can’t run because of shoes.”

In other words, the right shoe can help some of those who were not born to run, run anyway, and those who were born to run a little, run a little more.

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