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Feb. 16 2010 - 2:00 pm | 945 views | 0 recommendations | 8 comments

Barefoot running, revisited

A woman wears Vibram "Five Fingers" ...

Image via Wikipedia

It’s been over two months since I first wrote about barefoot running on this blog—two cold, snowy months, at that.  It only took one sole-numbing run through the snow in my Vibram FiveFingers to make me realize they’re strictly a spring-through-fall accessory: If our ancestors really were running great distances in bare feet to chase and eventually wear down their prey, I can only imagine their joy when they came home from a run in the snow to find that cousin Thag had discovered fire.

But the scientists studying barefoot running have not taken the winter off.  In an answer to the argument that no significant studies had shown that barefoot running is any better than shod running, two scientific articles on the subject were recently published, both providing evidence that suggests running in shoes causes injuries.

The first such study (see the Science Daily summary) examined joint torques, the rotational force on joints, of the hip, knee, and ankle during running.  The study found average torque increases of shod running over barefoot running in the range of 36-54 percent, a difference even greater than that between walking in high-heeled shoes and walking in flat-bottomed shoes!  But ladies kick their high heels off when it’s time to dance; most runners pound out the miles in their high-tech Brooks’ without so much as a second thought.

The other study made an even larger footprint, probably owing to its appearance in the well-known journal Nature. And, oh yeah, the fact that its author was featured in the leviathan Born to Run didn’t hurt, either.  But Harvard evolutionary biologist David Lieberman and his cohorts didn’t stop at Nature for their “Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners”—they set up an entire website to help spread its message.

Using pictures, graphs, and videos, the site clearly demonstrates the results of the study: that people who have always run barefoot run drastically differently from those who have worn shoes all their lives.  The barefoot runners land on their mid- or forefeet, while the shod runners strike with the heel.  This isn’t new, but the next part is: While graphs of impact show smooth increases when barefoot runners land, they exhibit sharp spikes for shoe-wearers.  Lieberman’s conclusion:

…most forefoot and some midfoot strikes (shod or barefoot) do not generate the sudden, large impact transients that occur when you heel strike (shod or barefoot). Consequently, runners who forefoot or midfoot strike do not need shoes with elevated cushioned heels to cope with these sudden, high transient forces that occur when you land on the ground. Therefore, barefoot runners can run easily on the hardest surfaces in the world…

In fairness, the authors are careful to point out that their study was NOT aimed at determining whether running shoes cause injuries.  But check out the website and see the evidence for yourself.  What’s that they say about “where there’s smoke”?

No doubt, this comes as exciting news to barefoot-curious runners.  If you do decide to jump on the barefoot (or near-barefoot) bandwagon, do yourself a favor and increase mileage slowly.  As healthy as barefoot running may be, if you haven’t done it your whole life, it’s going to take some time to get used to.  But as science is increasingly confirming, it’s what we were born to do.


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  1. collapse expand

    “It only took one sole-numbing run through the snow in my Vibram FiveFingers to make me realize they’re strictly a spring-through-fall accessory:”

    How short was that run? For me, after about 10 or 15 minutes to thoroughly warm up, my feet were perfectly comfortable with snow and ice.

    Just sayin’.

  2. collapse expand

    Dan, I think it was 4 miles, about 30 minutes. The first 20 minutes were painfully cold, the last 10 were uncomfortably numb. Enough for me. I seriously think I have a condition that prevents blood from getting to my hands and feet.

  3. collapse expand

    Why don’t you try wearing a pair of Injinji socks under your FiveFingers? I wear them throughout the cold weather and they keep my feet warm! I’d also probably try wearing the FiveFingers Flow, rather than the Classics that you have pictured. The flow have an insulated upper made from neoprene so they keep your feet warm and dry and are made specifically for protecting you against the elements!

    • collapse expand

      Thanks Rebecca! I’m going to get a pair of those socks, for sure. More because my Vibrams give me tiny blisters on the side of my foot where a seam is, but maybe they’ll keep my feet warmer too. Although, it sounds like the Flow might be necessary to get that benefit. I actually have the KSO’s, but feet still get wet when I run in the snow. I wonder if the socks would get all soaked and cold??

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Matt — I watched that video of the barefoot versus shod running, and wondered if the simple solution is to shim the rear third of a running shoe sole so that it’s not as clunky and doesn’t strike first. More sole mass would be positioned under the ball of the foot, and then the sole tapers and gets thinner toward the heel (the cushioning there is mostly interior). Is that too simple? Perhaps it would throw of the balance and weight of running shoes?

    • collapse expand

      Scott, I think there is something to what you are suggesting. I’m no expert on shoes, but I think that’s the idea behind minimalist shoes. Vibrams are the extreme, but there are several more-traditional looking shoes that have less cushioning in the heel and are not as high off the ground. This is what racing flats are, I think.

      I think it’s very sensible to want protection from rocks, glass, sticks, etc. I still don’t wear my Vibrams on real trail runs because I worry about an injury from something like this. The trick is to get protection without too much cushioning, because it seems the cushioning is what enables people to run with the unnatural, heelstrike form.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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Running Shorts is a part of the True/Slant network specializing in Running News, Trends, Insights and Perspectives. This blog is maintained by Megan Kretz (megan [dot] kretz [at] gmail [dot] com) and Geoff Decker (geoffreydecker [at] gmail [dot] com). Email either us with tips, suggestions or feedback. And thanks for reading!

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