Barefoot runners have a safer stride: Researchers

Running barefoot — and treading lightly — may be the key to giving the body a break.

People who regularly run barefoot, or run wearing minimal footwear, hit the ground differently with their feet, according to new research from Harvard University.

In doing so, these runners lessen the impact on their bodies.

“People who don’t wear shoes when they run have an astonishingly different strike,” said Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and co-author of a paper on the subject. “By landing on the middle or front of the foot, barefoot runners have almost no impact collision, much less than most shod runners generate when they heel-strike.”

Runners with shoes on tend to strike the ground with their heels, leading to an impact equivalent to two to three times their body weight, Lieberman said.

Lieberman, along with co-researcher Madhusudhan Venkadesan, also from Harvard, analyzed the running gaits of shod and unshod people in the U.S. and Kenya.

Lieberman chose Kenya, he said, because the region holds 50 per cent of the world records in endurance running and also has many barefoot runners.

“So we could compare people who run a lot and had grown up wearing shoes (and compare it to those who had) grown up barefoot,” he said.

In Kenya, they captured footage of people running on the ground with a high-speed video camera.

In the U.S., they measured the force of the impact by having people run on scales embedded in the ground. They also used a 3-D motion analysis system.

“Heel-striking is painful when barefoot or in minimal shoes because it causes a large collisional force each time a foot lands on the ground,” said Venkadesan, in a news release. “Barefoot runners point their toes more at landing, avoiding this collision by decreasing the effective mass of the foot that comes to a sudden stop when you land, and by having a more compliant, or springy, leg.”

Shoes are a relatively new invention and humans’ evolutionary history points to traits the favoured barefoot running, Lieberman said.

In their paper, which will appear this week in the journal Nature, the authors point out that modern running shoes didn’t even show up 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,” they write.

Lieberman admitted his research might not usher in a resurgence of barefoot culture in North America.

“Shoes are great because they are comfortable, and I don’t think we will ever become a barefoot culture,” he said. “Most runners can and do wear shoes if they can. But I think it’s fun to run barefoot (but) some may prefer to run the way they do in cushioned shoes. I think the key is for people to do what they want, have fun and avoid injury. There is no one way to run.”

Runners looking to make the change to barefoot jogs when they’ve worn shoes their whole lives may find it difficult as their muscles adjust, he said.

“If you’ve been a heel-striker all your life you have to transition slowly to build strength in your calf and foot muscles,” he said.

Nonetheless, barefoot running in North America is a trend that has attracted many shunners of shoes and produced many blogs and books on the topic.

Proponents of the activity advocate ditching shoes completely, claiming they actually cause more damage than they prevent.

Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian marathon runner, won a gold medal and set an Olympic record when he ran barefoot at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
© Copyright © Canwest News Service

Study on evolution of running finds going barefoot good for the sole, better for the heels

AP Science Writer

January 27, 2010 | 10:01 a.m.
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Harvard biologist and runner Daniel Lieberman had a simple question: “How did people run without shoes?”

The answer he got is: Much better.

At least running barefoot seems better for the feet, producing far less impact stress compared to feet shod in fancy, expensive running shoes, according to a study by Lieberman in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature. The study concludes that people seem to be born to run — barefoot.

The research was funded in part by a company that makes minimalist running shoes that try to mimic barefoot running. But Lieberman, who disclosed the grant, said the company had no say in the design of the study and didn’t influence the outcome.

People who grew up running barefoot — such as boys in Kenya’s Rift Valley province, which is known for endurance running champs — tend to land mostly on the front or middle of the foot when they touch ground. And when these runners do use shoes, they continue to run in that way.

People who have always worn cushioned running shoes usually hit the ground heel first.

The difference in the way the foot strikes the ground is important. Lieberman’s study examined the physical stresses on feet with different types of running and found that people with running shoes strike the ground with the mass of the entire leg, nearly 7 percent of the body. That’s more than three times the weight of impact for barefoot running.

“It’s really about how you hit the ground,” said Lieberman, who specializes in human evolutionary biology. “When you hit the ground, some of your body comes to a dead stop.”

For runners in cushioned shoes, “it is literally like someone hitting you on the heel with a hammer,” Lieberman said. But, he said that “the way in which barefoot runners run is more or less collision free.”

But runners should be cautious about ditching their shoes or using new ones that mimic barefoot running, Lieberman said. If you change the way you run quickly “you have a high probability of injuring yourself,” he said. In general, changes either in running shoes or distance should be no more than 10 percent a week, he said.

The study doesn’t look at injuries from running and doesn’t conclude that shod runners are injured more often. That specific research should be looked at next, he said.

Lieberman has looked at the evolution of long-distance running; 2 million years ago our pre-human ancestors used that approach to wear out prey during prolonged hunts. He found that the 1970s invention of the modern running shoe changed our strides. And it wasn’t necessarily for the best.

The study turned Lieberman into a barefoot-running convert, weather permitting.

“We did not evolve to run barefoot in New England in the winter,” he said. Yet, he said hard surfaces, glass, nails and concrete aren’t a real problem for barefoot running. Acorns are.

Dr. Pietro Tonino, chief of sports medicine at the Loyola University Health System in Chicago, wasn’t part of Lieberman’s study but said it makes sense because of what he sees every day.

“When you look at runners, the most common thing they have is, in most cases, heel injuries,” Tonino said. The No. 1 foot injury that Tonino sees is plantar fasciitis, a painful irritation and swelling of the bottom of the heel.

Tonino said cushioned running shoes work against evolution which developed the foot properly for endurance running.

“Your body is basically just very passive in the running activity compared to probably what it was designed to do,” Tonino said.

Tonino doesn’t recommend barefoot running for Americans who have gotten used to modern running shoes, but said for people who do not have foot injuries, less constrictive shoes might be a good idea.

For his part, Lieberman said barefoot running “is a movement that ain’t going away.”

What’s the name of the company who makes the minimalist running shoes?

I do my tech drills with a run off (A’s,B’s etc) in socks…gets strange looks but I feel better while doing them…so I can kinda relate to whats being said.

Do you mean Vibram Five Fingers?

Good idea but damn pricey. I know someone who has a pair and reckons they’re great.

Looked on the site and they had no stock in any colours of the M sprint sizes 42-46.

They need to sort their pricing strategy too US site they are US$80 and Aus link A$199. A currency conversion gave US$80 = A$90.1018 :rolleyes:

I wrote an article referencing the whole barefoot running issue (as well as other issues related to footwear).

The one issue I have with barefoot running and the Vibram shoes is that people think that switching to these types of methods will lead to less injuries and performance improvements automatically. I see people wearing the Vibram’s for all their running, on all surfaces. Of course, their running technique still looks horrible, even if they are not heel striking. I know sprint athletes who have tried the Vibram shoes for some of their workouts and, inevitable, it leads to heel bruises, plantar fasciitis, turf toe, shin splints and other problems because they thought the Vibram would simply replace their other shoes.

One athlete took his Vibram’s trail running and almost had his toe ripped off when he caught it on an exposed tree root. Not a good risk-to-benefit ratio.

So, be careful how you assess and apply the results of these studies. As always, common sense should prevail.

Another aspect people forget is that many who run barefoot developed/grew up running barefoot, which gave them years to adapt to the lack of cushioned shoes or whatever.

A trained runner who switches and doesn’t give their body a lot of time to adapt to the change and tries to maintain their previous volume/intensity is going to get injured more likely than not.

Because they are going to get a ton of stress thrown onto tissues that are not adapted to it.


The Nike Free 3.0 may be a good shoe to switch to before graduating to the Vibram

I understand Vibrams got a lot of a boost following the success of the book Born to Run which is an enjoyable easy read.

There is a chapter in it that goes into studies and the benefits of barefoot running but even there the author explains that in his (and most other cases) there needs to be a planned progression from ‘traditional’ running shoes to barefoot.

Or, you can simply learn to do your Drills and learn to run in Joggers.
Learn to Dorsiflex your foot for starters and land your foot Under you instead of infront of you.
From the ppl i have seen who try to take up running as an adult, after having not done it really much at all in childhood, they really have no idea on running form. Shoes or no shoes

I recently saw a segment on TV showing the different foot contacts with/without shoes. The slow motion made it obvious…

I tend to agree with the comments above- boldwarrior, lylemcd