Thursday, January 28, 2010

Barefoot running good for the sole?

When it comes to technology, the general assumption is that it makes life easier for us as it advances.

Take running for example. Every year, shoe companies come out with a new foot companion complete with state-of-art-cushioning, innovative support and lord knows what else for technological advancements. Avid runners are led to believe that the right running shoe is almost as important as the running itself.

However, according to an article by the Associated Press, runners might be better off with some good ol' fashioned barefoot running.

Harvard biologist and avid runner Daniel Lieberman concluded from a study that people who grew up running barefoot tend to land on the front of their foot, which is considered the ideal landing spot for absorbing weight. The study also concluded that those who have always worn cushioned running shoes usually hit the ground heel first, generally considered a lazier (and higher injury risk) form of running. Landing heel-first relies on the cushioning within your shoe to absorb the weight rather than the muscles that are in your feet.

Dr. Pietro Tonino, chief of sports medicine at Loyola University in Chicago, backs up Lieberman's study with the information that the No. 1 injury he sees with runners is plantar fasciitis, a painful swelling that occurs on the bottom of the heel. Tonino himself even states that modern running shoes "work against evolution."

How profound were the results of the study? Profound enough where Lieberman himself actually converted to being a barefoot runner as a result of conducting it.

I found the article more than a little surprising. For one thing, the thought of running barefoot in Minnesota during the dead of winter is one that appeals to me about as much as running on broken glass. The wear and tear a foot goes through just from walking outside to get the mail is enough. Just imagine running a full marathon with bare feet!

For another, the article also goes against general convention when it comes to running and physical activity in general. Most of us own several pair of shoes for a variety of activities, be it soccer cleats, running shoes or basketball sneakers. This article argues that our shoe purchases may have been unnecessary, as the best remedy for proper running form is apparently our own evolution.

However, the article does make sense when you think about it. Humans ran barefoot for millions of years before the advent of running shoes. Native Kenyans, typically among the fastest distance runners in the world, grow up running barefoot and have textbook running form to show for their years of calloused feet.

This doesn't mean you should throw your Asics in the trash anytime soon. Lieberman states that switching from cushioned shoes to barefoot running carries with it a high probability of injury because your body has gotten used to running a certain way. There are shoes available that supposedly mimic the mechanics of barefoot running, but those carry the same risks, cost a fair amount and, in the words of my coworker, look like "gloves for your feet."

The biggest thing I took away from the article is that it reiterates a point that sometimes gets lost when it comes to running: Worry about your form, not about your shoes.


  1. have you read "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall? It's Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's Copper Canyon who run barefoot - fun reading.

  2. I have heard of it, but I have not gotten around to reading it. That's definitely on my list of running books to look for in the library. I'm also looking for "The Runner's Guide to the Meaning of Life" by Amby Burfoot.

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