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Your expensive running shoes could be destroying your knees, ankles and hips

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January 6, 2010

Your expensive running shoes could be destroying your knees, ankles and hips

Your expensive running shoes could be destroying your knees, ankles and hips

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It's early January - you're probably looking to work off some of your Christmas kilos and shed that festive spare tyre. For millions of people around the world, that means making a New Year's resolution, buying a new pair of runners and hitting the road for a jog. But a new musculoskeletal study has concluded that the average modern running shoe is significantly more damaging to your knees, hips and ankles than running barefoot - or even walking in high heels. With osteoarthritis of the knee representing the biggest cause of disability in the elderly, this is a serious finding that's worth taking into account if you want to protect your joints.

Time and again, nature's solutions for physical architecture prove the most effective in the long run - and the world of running is waking up to the fact that the traditional cushioned running shoe might actually be doing more harm than good.

When you run barefoot, you naturally run on the balls of your feet, which lets your foot and ankle act as a wide-angled shock absorber for your whole leg. It's a scaled-down version of the way four-legged animals use their rear legs. The arch of your foot flattens with each stride and provides extra spring to the next step.

But when you use the average cushioned running shoe, with its elevated heel and arch supports, the tendency is to hit the ground with your heel first. While the shoes are designed to soak up a fair bit of the shock, they transmit the rest back up through the ankle, knee and hip, cumulatively causing the joint and cartilege damage that leads to conditions like osteoarthritis.

The Study

Published in PM&R, from the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, "The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques" took 68 healthy young adult runners of mixed sex and asked them to run at their normal comfortable pace on a treadmill after warming up.

Through onboard instrumentation, they collected data on the rotational torque that each runner's stride placed on the ankle, knee and hip - and had them run barefoot and in conventional running shoes chosen to exemplify the general traits of the genre.

Results

From the study: "Increased joint torques at the hip, knee, and ankle were observed with running shoes compared with running barefoot. Disproportionately large increases were observed in the hip internal rotation torque and in the knee flexion and knee varus torques. An average 54% increase in the hip internal rotation torque, a 36% increase in knee flexion torque, and a 38% increase in knee varus torque were measured when running in running shoes compared with barefoot."

Conclusions

From the study: "The findings at the knee suggest relatively greater pressures at anatomical sites that are typically more prone to knee osteoarthritis, the medial and patellofemoral compartments. It is important to note the limitations of these findings and of current 3-dimensional gait analysis in general, that only resultant joint torques were assessed. 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."

Running alternatives

The study supports the sentiment among a growing number of distance runners who are choosing to run barefoot and take advantage of what advocate Barefoot Ted describes as "the best pair of shoes you will ever own" - your feet.

But not everyone's got iron soles like Ted - so in the shorter term there's changes you can make if you wish to switch to a less harmful running style. For starters, you could switch to running in flat-soled shoes with minimal padding, and changing your stride to avoid passing shock up through your heel - for most people, this adjustment comes naturally when the cushioning effect of a running shoe is removed.

Or you could take the concept further - Vibram have built a running shoe that's basically designed to be nothing but a flexible, high-traction shield for the bottom of your foot, held on by the minimal possible fabric and with tiny pockets for each toe to give your feet the ability to move as naturally as possible.

The "Five Fingers" range (see above) have been building in popularity as a 'barefoot lite' option that opens up a wider range of surfaces and terrains for barefoot runners and protects the sole while encouraging a natural running motion.

If you've had any experience with barefoot or minimal-shoe running, let us know in the comments below.

About the Author
Loz Blain Loz has been one of Gizmag's most versatile contributors since 2007. Joining the team as a motorcycle specialist, he has since covered everything from medical and military technology to aeronautics, music gear and historical artefacts. Since 2010 he's branched out into photography, video and audio production, and he remains the only Gizmag contributor willing to put his name to a sex toy review. A singer by night, he's often on the road with his a cappella band Suade.   All articles by Loz Blain
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12 Comments

As a diabetic, running barefoot is not an option for me.

Bruce Alan Wilson
6th January, 2010 @ 04:59 am PST

Abebe bikila rules (he run Rome´s Marathon in 1960 barefoot). He inspired me to start running when I was a teenager.

Even now, I think about him when training, racing, running... :)



gedresto2004
7th January, 2010 @ 06:41 am PST

Or you can always switch sports. It's long been known that bicycling is a sport that can be enjoyed at any age. It's also a sport that runners turn to after they've destroyed their knees, but by then, the damage is done. Foot strike is the bane of runners. Researchers discovered decades ago that Tour de France racers were putting out the same amount of power every day as marathon runners. Yet they could do it day after day for three weeks while runners were wiped out after only one marathon. The difference? Lack of impact for the cyclists.

Gadgeteer
16th January, 2010 @ 04:01 am PST

"It is unknown to what extent actual joint contact forces could be affected by compliance that a shoe might provide"

but thats the whole point of a running shoe isn't it? So this is an unsatisfactory study.

AA747
16th January, 2010 @ 02:56 pm PST

I'm now 40 and have been running and hiking barefoot since I was a kid.

When I run (I am not a runner), I run barefoot. When I was much younger, I showed up for a volunteer firefighter event and ran a mile and a half on pavement barefoot. Pavement is the hardest on bare feet, believe it or not.

I also hike barefoot (just finished a hike yesterday where more than a few people asked about it). I get a lot of comments, as you can well imagine.

What I find is several things

1. When running across the desert of the southwest (yes, cactus!), I look and place my feet at speed. You just can't run and put your foot on anything, but this increases agility and awareness. It's automatic now.

2. When you run barefoot, you run differently - you're placing your feet instead of landing on them. I find I run much more lightly than many of my friends because of that, even though I have 80 pounds on them (mesomorph).

It won't come overnight. The same way you get blisters doing minor yardwork, you have to build up callouses on your feet. I'm not talking big, thick, unattractive callouses either. People look at my feet and would never guess I go barefoot much of the year.

Check this site out for more details, he runs marathons barefoot!

http://runningbarefoot.org/

Facebook User
17th January, 2010 @ 08:15 am PST

It's about time this info came out. I ran track back in the late sixties, and back then track shoes were light flexible items that offered not much more than abrasion resistance. We were trained to run on the balls of our feet, even distance runners and if our coach ever saw a heel touch the track it meant 2 extra laps.

When I tried to take up running again in recent years, I still ran on the balls of my feet, since old ingrained habits die hard, but found that the wide flat soles of today's running shoes didn't alloy for the natural angle of my foot as it struck the pavement. My foot would strike strike on the outer edge, and be torqued flat by the outside edge of the shoe.

Indoors at the local fitness club, I took to running on the treadmill barefoot (with socks on) because it was easier, more natural and more comfortable, After a few days, the director came by and told me i couldn't use the treadmill without shoes because it was too dangerous.

I wish I had this article back then. Currently I run in an old pair of sprinters shoes with a crowned sole which allows good contact at any angle.

Francis Bollag
21st January, 2010 @ 09:14 am PST

First, I'm not a runner but have been doing 5k three times a week. I have a pair of Asics "running" shoes that I don't really find as suitable for running as my pair of loafer-type slip-on Crocs. Call me crazy, but the Crocs are SUPER light and the sole is SUPER comfy. They just don't LOOK like a running shoe but they are way better in my opinion. They are much more like running barefoot than the Asics and I feel less jolt on my knees and legs.

kinbo1966
11th February, 2012 @ 01:23 am PST

i resently started jogging with the 'normal' running shoe and kept getting shin splints. I decided one day to kick the shoes and socks off and run the track barefoot, instantly the pain went away!!! AND I could run longer. Next day I went out and bought flat running shoes. I LOVE THEM!!!!!

me :0)
16th February, 2012 @ 04:28 am PST

I am now 51 and experiencing moderate foot and leg pain. I stay on my feet all day and landscape on my days off. I have given up on orthopedic shoes. My self therapy has been to keep shoes off my feet as much as possible to recover before lacing up again for work the next week. I suspected that the shoe manufacturers could not match the natural form of my feet. From my own conclusions, I started looking for a natural moccasin shoe but most are very ornamental and would not work for daily activities. I then started thinking I was going to have to create my own shoe until I saw this article. I was thinking of some kind of foot glove that would just protect the sole of my foot and then I saw the five finger shoe. AWESOME! The only problem now is coming up with the cash because the shoe is not cheap. It is amazing that you can simplify product design and the shoe becomes more expensive because it is trendy or meets specific markets like natural athletes. I will cough up the bucks if it will prevent the pain that I experience wearing new traditional shoes. I also suspect that after years of ignoring my natural walk with heavily cushioned shoes, that it has also caused me to experience some sciatic nerve pain in lower back, buttocks and legs.

Thanks for giving me insight on some options available to me. Senior

Senior
29th February, 2012 @ 08:04 am PST

It is my experience that when facts oppose beliefs most people deny the facts. Orthopods have known for years that the appearance of hugely cushioned and "supportive" basketball shoes that ( originally touted for the prevention of ankle injuries) so many youth covet, have coincided with a like increase in incidence and severity of mid and upper leg injuries. 200 years ago trackers could tell the difference between European foot marks and shoe wear from Native Americans by the fact that Europeans wore the back of the heels of their shoes while a Native wore the heel flat...the native had grown up wearing soft soled, flat, round bottomed moccasins. Traditional, tough, double bottomed with elk hide, moccasins can still be found in a few catalogs.

The answer is more in shortening the stride, walking or running, to groundstrike, with the mid- ball of the foot rather than the heel. Anyone can test this by simply walking on a hard surface barefoot while first using their full length stride with heel-first groundstrike, paying attention to the shock transmitted up the leg, then shortening the stride to groundstrike with the mid- foot area.

Mark Laube
13th July, 2012 @ 07:10 am PDT

I switched to barefoot 3 years ago. Within a few weeks, years of running injuries were gone (why? I stopped overstriding!). Within a few months, I had developed arches in my previously flat feet.

Since then, I've spent almost 100% of my time either barefoot, or in sandals like invisibleshoe ... the only times I've been in shoes: When I'm sprinting (sprinting spikes), or when I was in court for a few hours (I won the case).

I'm not saying it's for everyone, but I can't think of any reason not to try it.

Steven Sashen
1st November, 2012 @ 08:24 pm PDT

I have a difference of opinion and different data. Guess different shoes work for different people. Thickly padded running shoes don't make me land on my heels, but on the forefoot. And my orthopedic doc says best for your knees to walk "heel toe." I feel better with thick padding. It may be just another fad to have these flat "barefoot" running shoes. Most importantly, it may actually be a fallacy that "wrong" shoes cause knee and joint problems at all. One theory propounded by many osteo docs is that things like osteoarthritis are genetic diseases, and will happen no matter how much you exercise or don't, or what shoes you wear.

JesiKate Mays
11th February, 2014 @ 11:01 pm PST
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