I’m frequently asked, “Are humans really built to run barefoot?” With the constant bombardment of advertisements from athletic shoe companies making a convincing appeal to runners of the need for their latest high-tech, and expensive, pair of shoes, it’s no wonder that many people question the sanity of those who decide to run barefoot.
I’m convinced that, at least for me, barefoot running is better. No matter how much cross-training I did, when I was wearing top dollar running shoes, I would eventually experience one of a number of typical running injuries. After transitioning to barefoot running a year and a half ago, I haven’t suffered from any running injuries at all.
Still, my story, and the stories of others who sing the praises of barefoot running are just anecdotal evidence. Is there any real proof that humans were meant to run barefoot?
Born to Run Barefoot Study
Anthropologist, and Harvard Professor, Dan Lieberman performed a study that convinced him humans were born to run barefoot. The scientist found in the results that runners wearing shoes usually land heel-first, but that barefoot runners landed farther forward, ultimately causing much less collisional force to the body.
Lieberman also noted that running shoes “dampen the shock of a heel-first landing,” which is probably not the most efficient way to run. In fact, he says that the way barefoot runners run seem to store up more energy.
Anthropologist Brian Richmond from George Washington University explained how it works: “It allows the arch of the foot and the calf muscles to act as a better spring and to store up energy, and then give it back in the beginning of the next step.”
Lieberman says he is still is not taking sides over which style is actually better, or safer, as his study was not an injury study.
Are there injury studies that prove barefoot running is really better?
To date, there are no scientific studies that prove barefoot running reduces injuries or that traditional running shoes directly cause injury. According to an article in the Seattle Times by Dr. Paul Juris, the executive director at the Cybex Research Institute, the science is unclear. He says that while barefoot running is not “inherently bad, it’s not inherently good, either.”
Although barefoot runners whose own experiences have convinced them it is better will argue the point, convincing the scientific community may take time.
Juris’ colleague, Cory Hofmann, found that studies show only that barefoot running encourages change in biomechanical variables as the body adapts to soften the impact of running on hard surfaces. He says these changes could potentially contribute to changes in athletic performance or injury rates, but he underscores potentially.
Barefoot running skeptic turned convert
I’m convinced that as time goes by, there will be studies that will show barefoot runners experience fewer injuries than shod runners. Irene Davis, physical therapy professor at the University of Delaware, is referred to as a “barefoot running skeptic turned convert,” by Christopher McDougall, the author of the popular book about barefoot running, “Born to Run.”
Davis herself is now running barefoot 20 miles per week on asphalt and found that it doesn’t hurt. She says, “The harder the surface, the more lightly you land and the more easily you spring back.”
Davis was a co-author with Lieberman on the paper, “Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners,” published in the journal Nature in 2010. The paper provided evidence that modern cushioned running shoes actually change the body’s natural gait in a way that can lead to injuries such as tibial stress fractures and plantar fasciitis.
While it was still not enough evidence to prove that barefoot runners are actually experiencing fewer injuries, the results are encouraging for those that may try to scientifically prove that barefoot running results in fewer injuries over time.
After co-authoring the paper, Davis and Lieberman went to Kenya to conduct a more extensive mechanical analysis of habitually barefoot runners. Now, more convinced than ever, Davis is the head of Spaulding’s National Running Center in Cambridge, dedicated to helping runners improve their mechanics so they can run pain free.
The importance of transitioning
As with most activities, barefoot running may not be for everyone. People who are overpronators, supinators or who have poor forefoot stability may experience more problems running without shoes. Podiatrist Steve Pribut is a respected running injury specialist and has seen a fair amount of injuries from barefoot running, with plantar fasciitis, a painful heel injury, being common.
This also underscores the importance of transitioning slowly to barefoot running, especially if you’ve never been one to go barefoot. Be sure to follow the tips on how to transition to this new style of running, and if you experience pain, stop. Barefoot running may not be for you. Listen to your own body.
For me personally, I will never go back to wearing expensive athletic shoes, regardless of the next new study.