A recent trend among runners is a move toward barefoot or minimalist running. Given widespread recognition by a book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, the idea is that humans were physiologically designed to run barefoot and all of the cushioning and positioning offered by the typical modern day running shoe causes us to run “incorrectly” and increases our risk of injury. A new study published online in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise revealed some unexpected truths about the barefoot theory.
McDougall and other barefoot and minimalist running supporters contend that when we run barefoot or with little cushioning from shoes, we run primarily by striking with our forefoot or midfoot, which is a more natural and efficient way to run. When wearing shoes with cushioning, we enable ourselves to strike more on our heels without pain, thereby lengthening our stride unnaturally. This increases the amount of impact on our knees, hips and ankles and increases the risk of injury.
I have been running for many years and the theories put forth by McDougall and the barefoot running camp seemed logical to me. I tried a couple of different minimalist shoes, a pair of Nike Free’s and a pair of Merrell’s. The Nike’s felt good on my feet and felt fine while I was running but caused soreness in my lower back in the days following my runs. I tried to work through it, but it only got worse and I gave up on the Nike’s. The Merrell’s offer less support than the Nike’s and also caused me some lower back pain, though not as much as the Nike’s. I still have the Merrell’s and wear them occasionally but I have not been able to make them my everyday shoe.
Other runners I have talked to who have tried different barefoot style shoes have related similar stories. Calf soreness was very common but others noted pain or stiffness in their knees, back, thighs or other areas where they never had issues with their previous, more conventional, running shoes. The shoe manufacturers and barefoot running supporters do point out that there is an adjustment period for most runners who switch shoes but most of the runners I know were, like me, unable to get past it.
Over the last 30 years or so, running shoes have become big business. In an effort to sell shoes to runners in an increasingly competitive market, shoe companies have become more and more technical and specific in their designs. We now have different shoe models for stability, cushioning and motion control, and some with combinations of these features, all supposedly designed for an individual foot type and type of stride. In Born to Run, McDougall points out that all of this came about with a lot more study of marketing than of the science behind it.
Interestingly, most of the companies making barefoot and minimalist shoes are the same ones that produce the shoes that MacDougall rails against in his book. Although he makes a good case for the more “natural” running techniques being allowed by wearing minimalist shoes, there is just as much of a lack of research into those as there was into more traditional footwear. And since the same companies stand to profit from a new design fad that gets a lot of attention from runners, should we really believe that this is a revolutionary and more efficient way to run?
As this debate drags on, people have started to question the validity of shoe designs both new and old. The study outlined in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise provides valuable insight into some important aspects of running shoe design. The study was conducted in the sports lab at the University of Colorado and compared the efficiency of runners while adding progressively larger amounts of weight to their feet. They did this both barefoot and while wearing shoes. Not surprisingly, the runners were less efficient as the amount of weight on their feet increased. However, the researchers found that runners wearing shoes ran more efficiently than barefoot runners with the same amount of weight on their feet.
This runs counter to the barefoot theory that it makes you a more efficient runner. The researchers surmised that the extra cushioning provided by shoes reduced the amount of energy expended in dissipating impact during foot strikes. The extra cushioning also allowed the shod runners to increase their length of stride thus increasing their efficiency. It should be noted that all runners involved in the study were already experienced barefoot or minimalist runners, so they had already been conditioned to strike with the midfoot or forefoot.
While this study does not address the potential gains a runner might see by shortening their stride and reducing the amount of heel strike and impact, it definitely calls into question the value of running barefoot as opposed to a lightweight shoe. Regardless of where you stand on this debate, I think you’ll agree, scientific research into running shoes is a good thing. And while more study may be needed, this one did reveal some unexpected results and raises some additional questions. Isn’t that what the shoe companies should have been doing all along? Maybe the next time you shop for running shoes, you’ll be able to buy a pair that are based on a scientific study rather than marketing research.
McDougall, C. (2009). Born to run. Vintage.
(n.d.). Retrieved from http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Abstract/publishahead/Metabolic_Cost_of_Running_Barefoot_versus_Shod__.98716