Running Barefoot: Better Than Sneakers?

All you runners spending a paycheck on the latest running gear may want to know that mounting evidence suggests barefoot is better. There’s a fascinating review in the latest Scientific American (Observations: Running barefoot is better, researchers find) that reviews the latest medical literature, including a recent article in Nature that analyzed stress patterns of barefoot runners. Here’s the article’s (unusually readable) abstract:

Humans have engaged in endurance running for millions of years, but the modern running shoe was not invented until the 1970s. For most of human evolutionary history, runners were either barefoot or wore minimal footwear such as sandals or moccasins with smaller heels and little cushioning relative to modern running shoes. We wondered how runners coped with the impact caused by the foot colliding with the ground before the invention of the modern shoe. Here we show that habitually barefoot endurance runners often land on the fore-foot (fore-foot strike) before bringing down the heel, but they sometimes land with a flat foot (mid-foot strike) or, less often, on the heel (rear-foot strike). In contrast, habitually shod runners mostly rear-foot strike, facilitated by the elevated and cushioned heel of the modern running shoe. Kinematic and kinetic analyses show that even on hard surfaces, barefoot runners who fore-foot strike generate smaller collision forces than shod rear-foot strikers. This difference results primarily from a more plantarflexed foot at landing and more ankle compliance during impact, decreasing the effective mass of the body that collides with the ground. Fore-foot- and mid-foot-strike gaits were probably more common when humans ran barefoot or in minimal shoes, and may protect the feet and lower limbs from some of the impact-related injuries now experienced by a high percentage of runners.

The Scientific American article continues with a great discussion of this and other fascinating studies. Is this conclusive that people should throw away their sneakers? No, not yet — but it may call for much simpler-designed running wear. As they conclude:

Despite the growing movement of barefoot (or more lightly shod) runners, many researchers are calling for more evaluation before all those sweaty sneakers are abandoned. “There is no hard proof that running in shoes… causes injuries,” William Jungers, a professor of anatomical sciences at Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY, wrote in a commentary that accompanies the new study. But, he asserted, “In my view there is no compelling evidence that it prevents them either.” And as a boost to the barefoot argument, he added: “There are data that implicate shoes more generally as a plausible source of some types of chronic foot problems.”

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