Simon Bartold is not known for being short on opinions.
An international research consultant for Osaka, Japan-based Asics, Bartold has become the go-to spokesman for skeptics in the debate about running in barefoot and minimal footwear.
Bartold, who began his career as a podiatrist and sports researcher in his home country of Australia, joined Asics full time in 2001 as a consultant in the biomechanical development of the brand’s running shoes. His work was the basis for several gender-specific adaptations that Asics introduced in the past three years, including the Gender Specific Space Trusstic and Plus 3 cushioning design, both of which make adjustments to the standard franchise shoe to protect female runners on the road.
But Bartold has made more waves lately as he’s become widely known (and in the case of many barefoot-running-centric blogs, vilified) for his pro-shoe stance. He has been the leading voice countering many of the claims by barefoot shoe advocates and is often placed in opposition to researchers such as Harvard University’s Daniel Lieberman, who spoke alongside Bartold at the most recent U.K. Sport & Exercise Medicine Conference, held late last year.
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Here, Bartold talks to Footwear News about minimal claims that go too far, what we can learn from Olympic runner Abebe Bikila and the elusiveness of perfect form.
What’s your biggest beef with the claims coming from barefoot-only advocates?
SB: Their argument is if you wear a traditional shoe, it weakens the muscles in your foot and your foot will therefore overpronate. There are a lot of assumptions there. The first is that your foot would be inherently weak to start with. And if encasing the foot in footwear that’s stiff truly causes muscle weakness, it means that every elite [marathoner and] snow skier in the world would have flat feet [because overpronation and flat feet are often linked]. And it’s simply not true. There is a medical condition that causes a thing we call an intrinsic minus foot, which means that you get wasting of the muscles in your foot, and it happens in people with advanced diabetes and other diseases. In 100 percent of cases with those individuals, they have no intrinsic musculature. It wastes away. And in 100 percent of those cases, they have a high arched foot, not a low arched foot. Muscle weakness does not cause a pronating foot.
Some also have argued that minimal shoes can help guide you to a more-efficient, midfoot-focused running form. Do you take issue with that claim?
SB: The [real] question is: Is midfoot/forefoot striking the gold standard for runners? Have you seen Ryan Hall run? He heel strikes when he runs. Abebe Bikila is the cover boy for the barefoot movement — he won an Olympic gold medal running barefoot in 1960. He then went back four years later and not only won the medal wearing shoes but he broke the world record. And he did it heel striking all the way.
Do you credit his improved results to his shoes?
SB: Did he break the world record because he was wearing shoes? Probably not. He broke the world record because he was a great runner. But the point I’m trying make here is that the argument [online and within certain running circles] is very unbalanced. It’s actually scandalous what’s being said. Because [some barefoot advocates] are actually assuming that everybody should be a midfoot/forefoot striker and that everybody should wear minimalist shoes or go barefoot. And people are getting injured because not everybody can do that.
What do you make of claims that barefoot shoes help train your body to run more efficiently?
SB: The other argument that’s put forward is that if you wear a minimalist shoe, you’ll somehow magically achieve perfect form. That’s really unfortunate because a shoe — whether traditional or minimalist — can’t affect form to any great degree. The things that affect form are coaching, core strength [and] just hard work. The other interesting thing is that no one has been able to define perfect form, because if you get 10 coaches in a room, they’re going to have 10 different definitions.
So are you always against the idea of runners making the transition to a midfoot/forefront running style?
SB: I have no problem with people going down that path. I actually think it’s a great idea, it just doesn’t make sense for everybody.