Will Barefoot Running be the death of trainers?

A growing fad.

The barefoot running revolution has taken another stride across the Atlantic this week. Dr Mick Wilkinson, a barefoot runner himself and one of the first people to finish the Great North Run completely barefoot in 2011, told the attendees of the British Science Festival that he would advise anyone taking up running for the first time to run barefoot.

This is welcome news for barefoot running fans as most of those who choose to run barefoot, or even in minimalist shoes, still turn heads in the park or on the track and could really use some good scientific evidence in support of the idea, instead of the same old poor arguments.

Barefoot running has experienced a surge in popularity in the US over recent years thanks to a book called Born to Run and popularity is beginning to grow in the UK.

This advice from Dr Wilkinson came with the sensible caution that people should build up slowly to barefoot running, perhaps moving first on to very lightweight flat-soled flexible footwear while their feet become used to the practise. A sudden switch to barefoot running can cause a difference of an inch in your normal footfall from regular footwear.

The research carried out by Dr Wilkinson, a sport and exercise scientist at Northumbria University in Newcastle, found that while you need a gradual start you should begin barefoot running right on to a hard surface such as a running track, ignoring the instinct to sick to grassy softness.

Dr Wilkinson went on to warn that parents should steer clear of expensive trainers, saying that old-fashioned flat soled plimsoll shoes are preferable as they teach children to run in a more natural manner on the middle part of the foot. Once children learnt to run in fat bottomed shoes it’s a difficult habit to break as adults have to be weaned off them slowly.

The running shoe industry has grown substantially over the last few decades with companies spending vast amounts on researching ever more hi-tech trainers, but surprisingly levels of running injuries have not fallen.

The belief among barefoot running advocates is that the heavily cushioned heels of regular trainers are detrimental to people’s feet as the shape of the shoe causes us to hit the ground heel first, in what has come to be known as "heel striking".

The reputation of barefoot runners in the US is not always a pleasant one, with general opinion being that they act superior, lording it over runners who choose to wear traditional training shoes. Hopefully this is one characteristic that will not make it across the pond as the movement grows.

While perhaps we will soon see the fall of the traditional inflated trainer, named as gaudy dinghies by Harry Mount in the Telegraph, don’t expect this change to happen over night (or even within the next generation).

The only realistic solution is that parents and schools recognise the benefits of unheeled sports shoes. If children are started on them early then perhaps they will be able to avoid developing the bad shoe habits that we as a society have sadly stepped into over the last century.

The barefoot running revolution Photograph: Getty Images

Billy Bambrough writes for Retail Banker International at VRL financial news.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.