Is Barefoot Better?
By Nick Barringer MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS (EIEIO)
I remember in 2007 seeing some guys I worked with running around in black vibram shoes, wondering what the hell are those things on their feet. Today, minimalist shoes are so prevalent that you will catch the occasional soccer mom rocking a pair. But many still question—can it actually be better to have less cushioning on your feet?
The main genesis of the barefoot movement is undoubtedly Born to Run by Mark McDougall. If you have not read the book it is worth a read even if you are not a runner. I’m not a big runner but still found the story of the Tarahumara Indian fascinating.
Although I give Mr. McDougall no credit for originality as he was simply telling us something Springsteen said nearly 40 years ago.
Despite more padded shoes, running injury rates have pretty much remained constant. So the data certainly does not support the concept of more cushioning being protective.
Then there is mother nature: You have numerous muscles in your feet; why would we have them if they were not meant to work? It is also regularly argued that minimalist shoes promote a more natural gait. Which makes good sense because I challenge anyone to run barefoot and heel strike.
But some naysayers always say, “where is the science?” Well here it is (at least some of it):
In 2010 a group of researchers, led by Dr. Daniel Lieberman from Harvard University, where although prestigious, their students are most famous for getting upstaged by autodidactic janitors looked at foot strike patterns and collision forces in barefoot runners and those wearing typical running shoes. The researchers discovered that barefoot runners experienced significantly lower impact force and strike with their forefoot where runners wearing shoes had higher impact forces striking with their heels. What I found most interesting is that the highest impact of a barefoot runner was 200 body weights per second while the highest for a shod runner was over 600 body weights per second. That is a huge difference and one can easily comprehend how that extra impact can lead to injured joints.
Dr. Lieberman came back in 2012 and wrote an excellent review on barefoot running starting with an evolutionary perspective and finishing out with current science. He points out that humans have spent more time not wearing shoes than wearing shoes and therefore might be maladapted to wearing them and that is part of the reason injuries occur. Also padded shoes limit proprioception, or your ability to feel the ground with your foot. So if you don’t feel the ground and adjust to the terrain you might be more likely to roll an ankle.
He also highlights his previously mentioned research regarding the greater impact force experienced by shod runners and research supporting that greater impact force leads to injury. Although there is currently no evidence supporting performance enhancing benefit from barefoot running, Dr. Lieberman points out that decreased shoe mass lowers energy cost: shoe mass increases running cost by 1% for every 100 grams of mass.
In another study published in fall of 2012 in the Journal of Military Medicine by LTC Donald Goss, an Army Physical Therapist, looked at 2,509 runners (1,254 male, 1,255 female) aged 18 to 50 and assessed running tendencies, foot strike patterns, shoe preferences, and injury history. LTC Goss provides a nice breakdown of injury rates for traditional vs. minimalist shoe wearing runners based on different anatomical regions of the body. The graph shoes that runners who wore traditional running shoes had a significantly higher injury rate in every region of the body listed. Pretty convincing stuff…
Now, I’m not telling everyone to throw away their running shoes and break out the vibrams. However, I believe there is enough evidence for minimalist shoes to be explored; just start slowly.
Although research shows reduced impact forces, impact forces do occur so don’t go all “Tarahumara” in week one. Try walking in minimalist shoes for a few weeks before you start running in them. When you do start running keep the volume low and do not increase by more than 10% per week. Realize that your mechanics are most likely going to change so things like your achilles will experience more stress in minimalist footwear than a shoe with a higher heel. Many companies have different heel toe drop in shoes so you can ease into a barefoot style shoe versus going from a 13 millimeter drop like that found in many standard running shoes to a 0 millimeter drop found in many barefoot styles.
Note that “Toeshoes” such as the five fingers are banned for wear with the PT uniform in the Army. However, many other options like the Merrell gloves, New Balance Minimus, or even just plain racing flats are available for wear with the uniform.
Well, that about wraps it up, since I’m out of original thoughts I will leave you with a great quote from Roger Bannister that applies to both running and life:
“Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must move faster than the lion or it will not survive. Every morning a lion wakes up and it knows it must move faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn’t matter if you are the lion or the gazelle, when the sun comes up, you better be moving.”