No Shoes, No Problem? Barefoot Runners Put Far Less Stress on Their Feet

By Andrew Moseman | January 27, 2010 6:02 pm

running shoesPerhaps the original design is still the best. In this week’s Nature, Harvard’s Daniel Lieberman and his team reported on the impact force of people who are used to running barefoot versus those of us who wear spongy sneakers to protect the bottoms of our feet. Those who ran barefoot (the way humans evolved to run) moved differently, and with far less stress on their feet than the shoe-wearing masses.

The researchers first traveled to Kenya to watch endurance runners who grew up running sans shoes. The study—the first to test lifelong barefoot runners and not simply people trying it out—found that the barefoot runners landed on the front or middle of their feet. By contrast, runners in shoes typically land on their heels. Lieberman says: “This creates an impact; it’s like someone hitting your heel with a hammer with up to three times your body weight” [BBC News]. In follow-up tests in the United States, the team noted that barefoot runners put, on average, only a third of the initial impact force on their feet than their shod counterparts did.

In fact, fancy shoes are the only reason this running style is tolerable. The invention of the springy running shoe in the 1970s, the authors write, allowed runners to comfortably land on the heel first before rolling their weight forward on the foot [Science News]. Lieberman worries that since most of us aren’t running in a way for which our physiology evolved, we could be setting ourselves up for more injuries. And he’s not alone. Another recent study by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation … found that wearing running shoes “increased joint torques at the hip, knee and ankle,” when compared to barefoot running. Even a jog in high heels was better for joints than specialized tennis shoes [Scientific American].

But before you toss out those overpriced running shoes and start jogging the natural way, consider that the link between shoe-running and injuries is far from proven. Biomechanist Reed Ferber points out that while barefoot runners apply less stress to their feet per stride, they also take shorter steps, meaning many more strides for a runner to finish a marathon. “You could argue that if he’s going to take 7,500 more steps he’s more likely to get an injury,” Ferber says. “But you could also argue that all those steps don’t have that impact peak, so that might be injury protective. So who really knows at this point?” [Science News]

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Image: flickr / Rich115

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Shawn

    Running barefoot isn’t required to run naturally. There are shoes like vibram five fingers that are exactly like running barefoot, but while still having your foot protected.

  • lucide

    This is a good research. I’m a flatfoot and I’ve always ran on the front of my feet, even during races. But I’ve have been told off so many times that its the wrong way to run even though I felt it was more efficient, doesn’t hurt as much and makes me feel lighter on my feet.

  • Gary

    Conversely, I have a high arch and have always run on the front of my feet. My knees won’t tolerate the heel strike impacts of jogging or the military double time. The pain becomes excruciating. But when I lengthen my stride enough to let me land on the front middle of my foot, I can run comfortably.

  • Vermonster

    Maybe I’ll just run a marathon in my high heels, be sexy and have less chance for injury!

  • Dave

    Well, were shoes designed more to reduce impact or to support the arch of our foot and protect it? It kind of makes sense if you look at it from the aspect that a shoe doesn’t allow our feet to flex as much as they were naturally designed to. An Arch makes for a good spring, no?

  • terra incognita

    might the running surface have a great deal of impact (pun intended) on the effectiveness of going shoeless? from what i’ve seen many of the east african runners are running on clay surfaces, not concrete, when training in their home country. i can’t imagine running barefoot on concrete or blacktop for any period of time without significant joint/connective tissue damage.

  • JMW

    …Even a jog in high heels was better for joints than specialized tennis shoes…

    This certainly explains all those female superhero costumes with high heels.

  • http://www.sonomaoutfitters.com Sonoma Outfitters

    Our store has seen a *huge* increase in interest in the past few months in barefoot running and in the Vibrams Five Fingers and other thin-soled shoes. As I understand the article you don’t actually need to be shoeless to get the benefits of “barefoot” running, you just need to avoid big thick cushioned heels and stiff soles that stop your foot from flexing so any thin-soled flexible shoe would work. The advantage to using a shoe like that are obvious – no one wants to be running on rocks or broken glass with their feet totally unprotected!

    A word of caution though: if you’re going to switch to barefoot make the transition slowly and make sure you’re actually landing on the balls of your feet and not continuing to heel strike! running barefoot the way you run in sneakers is a surefire way to end up with a serious injury! If you can slow down, pay attention to your stride, and run with a bit more care then barefoot might be for you, otherwise stick to the sneakers.

  • Alan Norman

    I have been running either barefoot or in Five Fingers for approximately a year now. Prior to losing the shoes, I could barely pull 10 miles without terrible pain in my feet, knees and the constant threat of rolling my ankles. Now in Five fingers, 15-20 miles are possible again. Surface hasn’t made much of a difference, although gravel over concrete is painful. But asphalt has been pain free for me. Also, since beginning with minimialist running, I’ve had no tendonitis, no foot pain, and fewer blisters.

  • http://www.sockwa.com David Zasloff

    There are alternatives to the VFF. Barefoot Running can eliminate foot and body problems, by building foot strength, and relying of G-ds gift of a wonderful Human Body.

    Body mechanics are important, and small changes to the natural tendencies, can create a whole bunch of problems. A small limp, can easily throw a back out.

    Shoes that feel like socks are the future. We believe that the old method of making shoes is outdated, and that the 3/4″ thick sole is wrong. Runners with good body mechanics can run their whole life.

    There is a lot of information on the web regarding this, and we advise people to get back to the basics, and re-think what footwear should be. Sockwa is starting a revolution in footwear, that will allow all different shaped feet to be comfortable. Tread Earth Lightly.

  • Melissa McNamara

    I have always been an active person but for some reason I was unable to run for any real distance no matter how slow I started out. I was never able to progress beyond the beginer run 1 min then walk 1 minute routine advocated. As a person born with several heart defects I always believed that my inability to run for more than a minutes was directly due to my medical issues. After hearing about how running barefoot can increase stamina I tried it and have found a drastic improvement. I gradually eased into the new style (although even with care I did suffer severe calf and top of the foot pain for the first month) and now I can run for at least ten minutes before taking a minute break in between the next ten minutes. It was like my body was doing what it was meant to do. I am amazed at the change. The change to my body is incredible and I don’t feel like I am harming my body to do it.

  • http://www.heelspursstore.info Trent Orrell

    2. I finally went to a podiatrist (foot doctor) and got specially made shoe inserts. They were not cheap but was well worth the cost.

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