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barefoot running – what’s the big deal?

May 6, 2010 1 comment

A growing number of runners have been ditching their shoes and going barefoot.  This eccentric community of athletes may have been a joke in the running world for a long time, but some compelling research is proving that they’re not so crazy after all.  In fact, barefoot running appears to have a lot of benefits over running with shoes.

Evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, from Harvard University, recently published a study in the journal Nature in favour of barefoot running.  He states that if “endurance running was an important behaviour before the invention of modern shoes, then natural selection is expected to have operated to lower the risk of injury and discomfort when barefoot or in minimal footwear.”  In other words, humans have been barefoot running for millions of years, so why do we think modern ‘shod running’ is better for us?

Lieberman says about 75-80% of runners in the West are heel strikers – meaning they land on their heels then roll to the front of their foot.  This is creating significant force and strain on the heel – two to three times the runner’s bodyweight in fact.

But many of the runners I’ve spoken to have said heel-to-toe running is how they’ve been taught.  Are personal trainers and running coaches teaching people form that will end up hurting them?  Perhaps.  Heel-to-toe running causes “sudden forces with high rates and magnitudes of loading that travel rapidly up the body and thus may contribute to the high incidence of running-related injuries, especially tibial stress fractures and plantar fasciitis”. These repetitive stress injuries affect about 1/3rd of all runners according to Lieberman.

You might think that advances in running shoe design have helped people to reduce injuries, but surprisingly the “incidence of such injuries has remained considerable for 30 years despite technological advancements that provide more cushioning and motion control in shoes designed for heel–toe running27, 28, 29

Barefoot runners, on the other hand, tend to land slightly on the balls of their feet, creating much less force than shod runners.  Barefoot running helps to reduce heel striking and improves posture.  Lieberman says that “previous studies have found that habitually shod runners tend to adopt a flatter foot placement when barefoot than when shod, thus reducing stresses on the foot.12, 13, 14, 15

Take a look at this video.  It’s a good explanation of Lieberman’s case for barefoot running:

Aside from running on grass or the beach, you’re probably thinking that barefoot running will be pretty painful.  You’re right – I tried it the other day and it was unpleasant for my tender feet! For people like me who don’t have tough, leathery soles, there are shoes that are designed to simulate barefoot running without shredding you feet.   Barefoot running is a fun and interesting experience if nothings else. So give it a try and you may find yourself part of the growing barefoot community.

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