Barefoot running and cycling

An interesting analogy between barefoot running and cycling:

For years it has been ingrained in to folk that go hill-walking that it
is *essential* to wear “stout footwear with proper ankle support”, with
the latter taken to mean a high lacing cuff and the phrase really
meaning big, stiff hiking boots.

In more recent times folk have started to realise that this is a lot of
tosh, and in fact the literature on foot injuries tells you
counter-intuitive things about how and when feet get injured (like more
often in shoes than barefoot). Such people have started taking to the
hills in sandals and trainers, realising that the human foot isn’t an
evolutionary misfire but is perfectly capable of looking after itself as
long as the user engages in the ancient Zen mind-trick known as “looking
where they’re going”.

But you tell this to the boot die-hards, and they look at the scuffs on
their dreadnoughts and say they prefer intact toes to bloody puddings on
the end of their feet, and how their boots have saved them from terrible
injury etc. etc.

I used to preach the gospel of Big Boots too, but entering a Mountain
Marathon had a curative effect. All these people doing this regularly,
faster and over rougher terrain than I usually do, and hardly a pair of
boots in sight, perhaps they know something I’ve not been accepting?
c.f. cycling trip in Amsterdam and helmets…

This analogy is from by Peter Clinch, from Dundee, Scotland.

I love this part:

the ancient Zen mind-trick known as “looking where they’re going”

This highlights the difference in philosophy between the two groups.

  1. One takes responsibility for being cautious enough to avoid injuries.
  2. The other relies on technology to compensate for higher risk taking.

The belief in the “protection” using shoes is like the belief in the “protection” using helmets:

  • Both appear to “protect”, even though they can result in increased injuries.
  • Both seem so “obvious” than few people question them.
  • Both are harmful in ways that are counter-intuitive.
  • Both have their strong advocates who show a religious faith in them.
  • Both induce a false sense of safety, resulting in increasing risk taking.

In cycling, as the shoulders are much wider than the head, most falls do not result in the head touching the ground. Should it happen, the scalp makes the head slide, reducing friction and rotation. This reduces the risk of brain injury through rotational acceleration.

With a helmet, the larger volume of the head makes it more likely for the head to hit the ground. The polystyrene helmet tends to stick to the road and increases rotational acceleration. This increases the risk of brain injury.

Is this “protection”?

We can be fooled into accepting “protective” equipment that is not necessary, and even harmful. After the helmet law in Australia, the risk of injury tripled.

Helmet manufacturers know how to exploit our fears using scaremongering advertising. It takes effort to escape such insidious influence.

Next time somebody peddles “safety” equipment, ask

  • Does the risks warrant the equipment?
  • Could the “safety” equipment do more harm than good?
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9 thoughts on “Barefoot running and cycling”

  1. I’ve always remembered with some amusement the fellow who came to a CRAG meeting not long after the helmet laws were first introduced.
    He claimed that his helmet had “saved” him because he’d been knocked clean off his bike while dodging under a well-known low tree branch across a busy cycleway.
    Several others then pointed out that hundreds of cyclists were dodging under that tree branch every day without mishap, and he probably wouldn’t have hit the branch at all, if he hadn’t increased his height by wearing a helmet.

    The statistics show that the death rate of cyclists did not significantly change following the introduction of the helmet laws.
    It follows that on average the number of people who are still alive following a cycling accident and have been “saved” by their helmet, is… ZERO.

  2. Bad analogy – impacts are so very different, and, well, your feet do not contain your brain. And falls from a bike, whether landing on the shoulder or not, will result in the head hitting the ground – a direct impact. Wish you would review the research evidence on helmet safety first:

    The rotational injury makes no sense from a biomechanics and impact standpoint – relative to brain trauma skull fracture risk.

    On a side note, my wife crashed her bike, landing directly on her shoulder, severely fracturing her collar bone and shattering her helmet…but no head injury…

    1. Thanks for the link. This research is based on “studies” from helmet activists funded by helmet manufacturers. This is neither objective nor scientific. These flawed studies have been discredited years ago. More info here:
      It’s easy to get fooled by such “research”.

      If you are really interested in bicycle helmets true capabilities to protect against brain injury, then have a look at independent scientific research:

      The anecdote highlights a popular fallacy that a shattered helmet must have “saved” the cyclist. This is a myth. A bicycle helmet is designed to compress to cushion the impact. A helmet broken into pieces did not compress, thus failed to cushion the impact. There is a good overview of bicycle helmets here:

      Most likely, there would have been no head injury either if she wasn’t wearing a helmet. Helmet believers tend to attribute a lot more to their helmet than what is warranted by hard evidence.

    2. I love how u said head WILL hit the ground. Guess what? The two times ive fallen off my bike, my head did not hit the ground. Both these falls were mointain biking. Never come close to falling when just riding casually along the bike path so i do not think a helmet is going to do much for me

  3. I heard that the wearing of helmets subconsciously encouraged cyclists to take more risks. However, I’m glad I was wearing a helmet on the day I blacked out while cycling. The impact was enough to crack the hrlmet’s outer shell.

    1. Thanks for pointing out a common fallacy: many people believe that a cracked helmet is “proof” that it worked. That is incorrect. A bicycle helmet is designed to compress to cushion the impact. A cracked helmet did not compress, and failed to cushion the impact.

      This overview of bicycle helmets provides more details:

    2. Steve – you wrote that you blacked out while cycling. Interesting! Could it be, that your helmet caused your blackout? Could this be another of the hidden hazards of helmet wearing which are not recognised by the official statistics?

      One of the more difficult aspects of helmet wearing is the possible effect of strapping on thermal insulation around your head. Polystyrene is commonly used as a container for take-away coffee, because it is a very effective thermal insulator.

      I have heard mutterings from time to time, that putting such thermal insulation around your head may not be such a good idea, particularly if you are engaged in vigorous exercise. According to the “Radiator Theory” of human evolution (Falk, 1990), the large brain of modern humans relies on cranial blood flow to keep cool. Independent research by Cabanac and Brinnel (1987) found that venous blood flow through pores in the skull reversed direction under conditions of heavy exercise, providing a cooling flow of blood to the outer layers of the brain. This can be seen as experimental support for the radiator theory.…-a09039378

      So could it be, that strapping coffee cup insulation around your head, then going for a vigorous bike ride, might actually put you at risk of overheating your brain? We don’t have any sensory nerves in our brains to alert us to overheating, so the first symptoms might well be neurological malfunction – convulsions, blackouts…

  4. Great analogy! it really does show that some well intentioned thoughts can be challenged and refuted! The succinct explanation of helmets increasing the risk of rotational injury in the third last paragraph has sold the benefits of helmet free cycling to me!!

    Great article – thoughful and articulate!!

    Thank you

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