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mundane adventures in running

Response to a tedious Guardian blogpost

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I should really like an article entitled: “Run away! Why it really doesn’t matter what trainers you wear”. I should especially like it as it’s a piece of potentially interesting writing on the normally dull as ditchwater Guardian running blog. Yup ‘Why it doesn’t matter what trainers you wear.” I agree, I don’t care what trainers people wear, there’s more to running than that, bring it on!

But, it turns out David Bradford’s article was curious mix of trolling, a misrepresentation of someone else’s good and well meaning research, and a bit of micro-cyber bullying.

The article starts with a rant about some people that might exist, and who, if they do exist, should either be gently encouraged to shut the fuck up, or just be ignored. There are some fairly light hearted but mean spirited characterisations of bare foot advocates. He’s talking about barefoot advocates… Fuck, I am a bare foot advocate! At least insofar as it’s been an important part of my running life, it’s helped improve the way I run and has been a fun and interesting adventure. That said, I’m pretty wedded to shoes (and proper shoes too, not just minimalist ones), I’m aware that barefoot running is not for everybody, and I do try (not always successfully) not to offer people fitness advice because, categorically, it’s annoying when people offer unsolicited fitness advice*.

So, of barefoot advocates, Bradford says:

“The dreariest variant spews forth from parishioners of the Church of Barefoot and Minimalist: people inexplicably possessed of a messianic fervour about the imagined merits of running in shoes that are, essentially, a bit less cushioned.

“There is no respite from their jabbering on about which model is coolest, lightest, fastest; which provides most “real feel”, least sponginess, optimal “heel drop” … blah, blah, blah. It’s nearly enough to make me lob my knackered Nikes in the bin and acquire an immoderate drinking habit.”

I don’t think I’m like that, and I haven’t met anyone like this in real life, although in fairness I have have come across them on the internet. I will give David Bradford the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really has encountered this fervent and boorish variety of barefoot runner. If David is really so touched and affected by dull evangelists, he needs to learn to ignore them and leave them alone. He also needs to recognise that according to his own clarion call of “Why it really doesn’t matter what trainers you wear, wear what you want!” he should let them get on with it, and not criticise them, especially not in such mean and dismissive terms.

I get that it’s meant to be funny, so yay! bants! lolz! obviously journalists are paid to have opinions, and he is simply having an opinion for money: generating clicks, getting a bit of argey bargie going in the comments section**. He’s doing his job.

The article moves from the rant and on to its main content: findings from a piece of recent research which he cites as corroborating his view that barefoot running is ‘nonsense’, but which he either hasn’t read, or hasn’t understood. As he says:

“A recent study from the British Journal of Health Psychology found that runners’ views on barefoot shoes are not only wildly inconsistent but also irrational – if not outright fantastical.”

The study, What do people think about running barefoot/with minimalist footwear? A thematic analysis (Peter D. Walton* and David P. French), is a fairly accessible and interesting paper (interesting if you are into research/ barefoot running/ sports psychology) with a very literal and descriptive title. Indeed, the study does discuss what people think about running with minimalist and barefoot footwear. It finds that runners’ views on barefoot and minimal running are sometimes pretty incoherent and contradictory. Bradford’s “wildly inconsistent but also irrational – if not outright fantastical” is an extreme description, but not wholly inaccurate.

Bradford seems to argue that there are some runners who are confused and don’t really understand what shoes to buy. He conflates these people with barefoot evangelists, says (because they are confused) we should run away from them:

“The moral of this study is that some runners choose their footwear according to a haphazard mix of dubious determinants; they’re baffled by the huge array of choice, as well as by conflicting advice, bewitching marketing spiel and their own dazzled desires. They seek an impossible blend of the natural in the unnatural; impartiality from the partial; and mid-soles with magical powers. Bless them, they’re lost, but that doesn’t mean we have to indulge their protracted cries for help. Want my advice on how to handle them? Run.”

I don’t think that is the ‘moral’ of the study. In fact the study shows something quite different: that some people who largely weren’t into barefoot running*** were confused about barefoot running, and about footwear in general, and that there were consistent themes in the types of things they said. It shows that the marketing doesn’t help, that there’s as much nonsense around minimal footwear as there is around supported or motion control footwear, and that people don’t really know where to go for advice. It doesn’t show that the thinking behind barefoot running is confused nonsense****, that actual barefoot runners are confused, or give a reason why you should ‘run’ from people talking about trainers.

My guess is that he doesn’t really understand research, and that he probably just skimmed the article. Certainly his criticism of the sample size, his misunderstanding of who the participants were and his own weird conclusions would imply this.

Even if not deliberate, his misrepresentation of the research is sad and unfair. The chances are that Bradford’s article is the one of the biggest pieces of publicity the researchers will get. This seems a shame for the authors. Their work was valid, interesting and made for a good read. If I were in their position, I’d be upset that my work had been reduced to: thickie runners are confused about the merits of barefoot shoes, they don’t know what they’re talking about so why listen to the barefoot bores when you could listen to me instead?

More troublingly, he talks about the research participants in a way which almost breaches ethical standards. He calls out and namechecks one participant for not knowing what ‘support’ means in the context of footwear and makes a little joke about it. Lolz! He calls out another, again by name, for thinking he’d gotten a good deal when he’d been sold a pair of expensive shoes. Twat!

Researchers have to have some respect for their participants. I believe it’s an ethical obligation to treat your participants well, and that includes not taking the piss out of them, and also making sure they consent in a meaningful way. I am in no way accusing the paper’s authors of being unethical, but some how Bradford is making them seem unethical by proxy. Certainly, the way Bradford talks about the participants makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t think they expected to be quoted in a well respected and widely(ish) read media outlet in that kind of mocking, jeering, mean minded way. I don’t believe Bradford’s treatment is what these people had in mind when they signed the consent form and agreed to take part in the research. I know they are anonymous, and they won’t be laughed at in the street, but I think I’d still be mildly upset to be talked about publicly that way.

Anyway, in conclusion, while I agree with a lot of Bradford’s opinions (those ones he’s paid to have), I think this research is worth more than his mean and inaccurate summary of it. Also, I cling on to the notion that the Guardian is a quality newspaper. Even though Bradford’s article is just a throwaway piece of online tat and didn’t make it to the real newspaper, I’d still expect something published by the Guardian to be of a higher standard than this. Certainly, the more earnest, but far better Guardian bike blog wouldn’t put out an article quite as shit as this..

Oh yeah, and the accompanying photo is lazy*****.

If you are interested in running as a cultural phenomenon, interested in sport psychology, or want to know what people do think about running barefoot/with minimalist footwear, I really recommend the original paper (it’s behind a paywall there, I read it on pubmed, the guardian links a facebook page which suggests you can tweet the author to get a copy for free).

—-

*  This is a bit of a lie. There are some very pro barefoot running articles on this blog. Also, I tell anyone who likes running and will listen that they should try doing a 1 month running streak if they haven’t already.

** The guardian comments section is one of the worst places on the internet. It’s a haven for people who fit in the perfect venn intersection of smug, angry and wrong.

*** It was a sample of 10, 2 participants were excluded in analysis. Of the remaining 8 at least 2 are pretty anti barefoot running, and 1 is possibly an advocate…. not sure about the remaining 5.

**** Although I am at pains to agree; a lot of what barefoot evangelists say about barefoot running is probably bollocks.

***** Thanks to someone for pointing that out.

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2 comments on “Response to a tedious Guardian blogpost

  1. africa munyama
    26/02/2016

    Saw the article this am and was about to forward on to you .

  2. CeeJayKay
    26/02/2016

    well i LOVE my Nike Free3, 4 and 5’s… wouldn’t go a day without them!
    I was coerced by a well know running shop to try another brand or running shoe when i run distance… and while i have, oddly, i have picked up injury after after injury in the last year…. hmmmm food for thought!

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