Monday, January 4, 2010

Barefoot beats most running shoes

One of the key recommendations for runners has always been, “Wear good shoes.”

New research is now suggesting that may be bad advice.

Not that you should wear bad shoes, but rather, perhaps, that you should wear no shoes at all. Of course, that's problematic for a number of reasons, even in fair Hawai'i.

Scientists comparing running in shoes and running barefoot have found that while shoes protect the feet in some ways, standard running shoe designs also dramatically change stresses on the joints of the lower body.

The press release is here. and the actual report is here.

The findings suggest that standard running shoes, with raised heels to reduce impact on landing and wide heels to prevent pronation, create significant changes in torque on the ankles, knees and hips.

The study was published in the PM&R: The journal of injury, function and rehabilitation under the title, "The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques." Authors are D. Casey Kerrigan, MD, Jason R. Franz, MS, Geoffrey S. Keenan, MD, Jay Dicharry, MPT, Ugo Della Croce, PhD, and Robert P. Wilder, MD. (PM&R: The journal of injury, function and rehabilitation, Volume 1, Issue 12 (December 2009), published by Elsevier. )

The researchers ran subjects on a treadmill, with standard running shoes, and without. Subjects were 68 individuals who ran regularly at least 15 miles a week, about half of whom were men and half women.

Their findings indicated that the running shoes transferred significant amounts of rotational force on the leg joints above the foot, when compared to barefoot running.

One message from this work might be to run barefoot. But broken glass, nails, sharp rocks and the rest of the debris along roadside running routes could make that a hazardous adventure.

The authors suggest the work could inform the design of future running shoes, to reduce the joint torque issues: “It is unknown to what extent actual joint contact forces could be affected by compliance that a shoe might provide, a potentially valuable design characteristic that may offset the observed increases in joint torques.”

I confess that I was a longtime barefooter. Old-timers in Hawai'i and particularly on Kauai may remember the “barefoot reporter.” I started wearing running shoes when I started running marathons and later triathlons, primarily for protection from roadside debris. The running days are long over, due largely to foot, ankle and knee issues. And now, I wonder, “Was it the shoes?”

I hesitate to take that concern too far. We were designed to walk and run generally on forgiving natural surfaces, while much running today is on solid concrete and asphalt. You can feel the difference.

The authors of the shoe/foot suggest manufacturers consider changes in popular shoe design.

“The development of new footwear designs that encourage or mimic the natural compliance that normal foot function provides while minimizing knee and hip joint torques is warranted. Reducing joint torques with footwear completely to that of barefoot running, while providing meaningful footwear functions, especially compliance, should be the goal of new footwear designs.”

Does that mean new running shoes will look like the interesting, strange Vibram Five-Fingers?
Probably not, but it might be a step in the right direction. Here's one take on them.

On the other hand, don't give up on your natural feet. Here's the website for the sport/lifestyle of “barefooting.” It includes a number of reviews of shoes that provide protection from the road/path surface, without the “control.”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010



During my youth I did quite a bit of barefoot walking in the summers. Even where there were no broken glass or pieces of metal, there were thorns, hot sand & sharp rocks. Painless walking on such surfaces, let alone running, requires thick layers of callus under one's feet, which we didn't have.

Dave Smith said...

A distance runner on the Big Island named Kawika Spaulding was well-known for running bare-footed, even in 100-mile ultra-marathons up Saddle Road.

I believe he's still running, although I'm not sure if it's still bare-footed.

Mr. Franklin said...

this is funny because I wear orthotics and people say I needed them because I never went barefoot when I was growing.

Mr. Franklin said...

this is funny because I wear orthotics and people say I needed them because I never went barefoot when I was growing.