Barefoot running, revisited
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.