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Running barefoot lessens impact - but don't throw your shoes away just yet

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February 3, 2010

The representative force traces showing how the two styles of running (shod: left and bare...

The representative force traces showing how the two styles of running (shod: left and barefoot: right) differ in the force generated when the foot collides with the ground (Image: Daniel E. Lieberman/Harvard University)

New research has backed up the findings of another study we covered recently on Gizmag which found the average modern running shoe causes significant damage to the knees, hips and ankles compared to running barefoot. The new study found that people who run barefoot land on the ball or middle of the foot. This mitigates the potentially damaging impacts that can be equivalent to two or three times their body weight that shoe-wearing runners, who generally land on their heels, subject their bodies to.

“People who don’t wear shoes when they run have an astonishingly different strike,” Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and co-author of a paper told the Harvard Gazette. “By landing on the middle or front of the foot, barefoot runners have almost no impact collision, much less than most shod runners generate when they heel-strike”.

According to Lieberman running barefoot can allow runners to run on the world’s hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort or pain. That is, once they’ve toughened up the soles of the foot with a few calluses.

The research team comprising scientists from Harvard, the University of Glasgow, and Moi University in Kenya worked with runners in the US and Kenya, looking at the running gaits of three groups: those who had always run barefoot, those who had always worn shoes, and those who had converted to barefoot running from shod running.

It found that most shod runners struck the running surface with their heels, which resulted in a very large and sudden collision force about 1,000 times per mile run. In contrast, those who ran barefoot tended to land on the middle or ball of their foot with a springy step that alleviated the collision force, thanks to some clever Newtonian physics.

“Barefoot runners point their toes more at landing, avoiding this collision by decreasing the effective mass of the foot that comes to a sudden stop when you land, and by having a more compliant, or springy, leg,” said study co-author Madhusudhan Venkadesan, a postdoctoral researcher in applied mathematics and human evolutionary biology at Harvard.

While the modern running shoe wasn’t invented until the 1970s, barefoot runners are now benefiting from millions of years of evolution. According to Lieberman, our early Australopith ancestors had less-developed arches in their feet. Homo sapiens, by contrast, have evolved a strong, large arch that we use as a spring when running.

But for runners who have grown up with footwear and are looking to throw away their running shoes and go barefoot, Lieberman warns it is something to be eased into. Because modern running shoes are designed with padded heel cushions to lessen the impact of heel-striking, runners switching too quickly could subject themselves to much greater impacts. Since running barefoot uses different muscles, runners need to transition slowly to build up strength in their foot and calf muscles as they change their running style, he states.

The team’s study, “Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners,” appears in the journal Nature.

Source: Harvard Gazette via Science Daily

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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5 Comments

Well, that's rather bizarre! I've never run heel-toe. That is just uncomfortable.

Ed
4th February, 2010 @ 10:14 am PST

How about changing your running style, but keeping the running shoes? I don't fancy running on the odd piece of granite chipping, or broken glass. The biggest advantage is, you save a large amount of money by not buying running shoes.

windykites1
4th February, 2010 @ 12:16 pm PST

After having read the previous article and a few others I decided to go the barefoot route. This article would have been good to read before doing so. My calf muscles needed about 3 weeks to recover from my first barefoot run! It was a pretty easy transition to run on the balls of my feet and I made significant improvement in speed but by my 75% marker my calves gave out and I walked(limped) the rest...walking 25% I still came in under my previous time! so there is something to that "spring" in the arch.

Now taking it in shorter increments until my calves have fully recovered and adjusted but I will continue the barefoot method as I felt an immediate benefit!

Christopher Wooten
4th February, 2010 @ 01:05 pm PST

Mmmm... does this mean that the 'heel raised' position which high heels put the foot into is actually more natural? Babies seem to walk on balls of the feet, until they are taken to a shoe shop where the mumbo jumbo advice that comes with the shoes tells you that one of the benefits of children's shoes is that they make kids walk on their heels.

Doug MacLeod
6th February, 2010 @ 02:41 am PST

I ran a marathon last year and in the preparation experienced shinsplint issues. By changing my running style to the one described above (although with regular running shoes), the problems went away (described in detail on my blog: http://stefansinsights.blogspot.com) . I will definitely give this a try.

Stefan Lafloer
18th February, 2010 @ 06:47 am PST
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