Monday, March 08, 2010

We were made to run barefoot, says new study from journal Nature

 Photo and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD

This post now on Google News and on BasilandSpice

New research from Harvard University suggests that running barefoot might be beneficial.  Says Daniel Lieberman of Harvard, "One shouldn't be scared of barefoot or minimal shoe running or think it odd.  From an evolutionary perspective, it's normal and, if done properly, it is very fun and comfortable.  We evolved to run barefoot."

 Bare feet strike the ground differently
 Running barefoot is different from running with shoes on. The invention of the springy running shoe in the 1970s allowed runners to land comfortably on the heel before rolling forward on the foot.  In contrast,     landing on the barefoot heel  is not a good idea. Barefoot, "a rear-foot strike is like someone hitting you on the foot with a hammer with about one and a half to three times your body weight," says Lieberman  Ouch!  But modern cushioned running shoes make landing on the heel not only comfortable, but possible without damage.

Historically, people running barefoot have landed on the front or middle of the foot first, before lowering the heel and transitioning body weight to the back of the foot..  Sprinters still run primarily on their forefeet, but the mechanics of sprinting are different from long distance running.

Researchers studied Kenyan barefoot runners
To study the mechanics of running and sprinting, Lieberman and his colleagues traveled to the Rift Valley of Kenya and taped the movements of endurance runners who grew up running barefoot.  The researchers found that these runners generally hit the ground with the forefoot or middle of the foot before lowering the heel.  Runners in the U.S. typically hit the ground first with the heel.

Barefoot runners take shorter strides, but each stride has less impact
So far, there is not much evidence about which way of running causes more injuries. But it is clear that barefoot runners flex the foot in a way that results in a shorter stride. Reed Ferber, a bio-mechanist at the University of Calgary in Canada, said that a 6-foot 2-inch barefoot man would take 7,200 more steps to finish a marathon, because the length of his stride would be shorter than the stride of a man with shoes. Would that mean more injuries? Maybe.  But not necessarily, because all those extra steps don't have that "impact peak, so that might be injury protective."

Too early to be sure...
The researchers concluded that it's too early to draw conclusions about the advantages or disadvantages of running barefoot. More research is needed to evaluate the effect of the variables, such as one's condition, the amount of calf muscle, ability to run on the forefoot or midfoot, and so on.

So, don't throw out those running shoes yet!

Daniel E. Lieberman. "Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners." Nature 463, 531-535. January 28, 2010

Laura Sanders. "Running barefoot cushions impact of forces on foot:  too soon to say if shoeless approach reduces injuries".  Science News, February 27, 2010.

Key words: running barefoot, shoes, feet, Kenya




Jib said...

Very interesting. For the first time in a long time I walked and sprinted barefoot today -- I walked over to a park to warm up, and to get used to the barefoot feel, and then when I got to the field, I did some sprints.

It felt amazing. I'm not sure if I prefer midfoot or forefoot striking...

...but I remember doing this as a kid. My friends all had bikes, and I didn't have one, so I would walk and run (though I didn't have a lot of long-distance stamina, so I just ended up spending a lot of time alone when they went too fast XD)

-- but I used to, on occasion, race people on their bikes. I was very fast as a kid. I distinctly remember running barefoot on the sidewalk when I was a kid, in a race against one of my friend's friends. I'm pretty sure I kept up with him, riding on his bike, and it took a while for him to build up enough speed to pass me out.

It's funny how I used to do all these things as a kid. Then you get a little older, and you forget what being natural is all about.

We weren't born with shoes. You could also argue that we weren't born with jackets, though, and use that as an argument that we should run around naked in the middle of January on the east coast of America.


So I'd say...if there are benefits to using shoes, go for it. I'm sure there are benefits to both -- like boots in winter, maybe a good pair of running shoes would be a good idea in certain situations. I'm sure the possibility for injury in barefoot running is higher, if only for the fact that many people may transition to barefoot running without preparing themselves first.

It's like doing deep squats, aka "ass to grass" -- I don't like using weights, so I do bodyweight squats, but it's important to build up strength and flexibility before doing them. Someone who's run barefoot their whole life will probably be much less likely to get injured from it than someone who's run with shoes on most of their life, and has just transitioned to running barefoot. The adaptation period could be years -- who knows?

As for me, I just started barefoot walking/sprinting again, like I did when I was a kid, but I'm taking it easy. Definitely no barefoot running on pavement or even a track -- I'm sticking to grass/fields for now. And as far as injuries go, I think keeping moderation in mind is of UTMOST importance.

Proper rest, gentle stretching, nutrition, and a day or two of recovery time should be good guidlines to go by. I'd just say listen to your body, though, and remember -- it might be more natural to run barefoot than to use shoes, but it's also more natural to rest when you want to rest instead of forcing yourself to do another sprint, or another mile, and so on and so on.

Ah well, that's just my two cents. I don't have any expertise to offer, but I do have personal experience (i.e., I can speak for myself) and *a tiny bit of* common sense. Not much, though. I can't be that smart if I've been in such lousy health most of my life XD

Hope you don't mind my comments X)

Thanks for sharing!


otehlia cassidy said...

I study West African dance, and have danced barefoot for years. I swear it is the best feeling, to dance barefoot. I can't imagine dancing with shoes on. Now I make sure to walk barefoot in my yard during the summer, too. Great blog, by the way!