Running barefoot without actually running barefoot

23 10 2012

The latest and greatest trend in running in the past few years has been barefoot running.  The spark behind this trend was research on our ancestors and some current native populations that run faster, better, longer without shoes.  I’ve been interested in this topic along with the Tarahumara people, ever since watching a documentary on running and ultramarathons a few years ago, however I haven’t been able to find the link to the exact video.  I know it was on a cable science/history channel, but I can’t remember which one.

Recent research has delved into why this is the case and how runners today can gain that benefit.  Some runners choose to run fully barefoot, but I’ll have to admit that makes me a little squeamish.  What about stepping on/in something that could damage/contaminate your feet?  I’m sure this sentiment is why there is a whole market of shoes that mimic the barefoot feel, while still providing some protection, and peace of mind.  One barefoot running shoe website I found via Google search offers 15+ brands with hundreds of style and color options.  I recently went with my Dad to pick out some new walking shoes, as he wanted to try some of these lightweight, non-shoes, so I’ve seen firsthand the extensive variety and marketing associated with this new type of shoe.

As runners have now had a chance to try out these shoes or lack of shoes, there have been some mixed results as to the benefit of this technique, so delving further into the scientific results helped to shed light on the subject.

A recent story in the New York Times, “Myths of Running: Forefoot, Barefoot and Otherwise” by Gina Kolata, highlighted several recent studies, and helped my interest in delving further into the subject.  The story talks about who uses which style of running, how much energy is used with/without shoes, and if we all ran in the same style, would running with or without cushioning be better.

The story never really goes into defining what all the styles actually mean, so I’ll give it a shot:

Heel striking:  The heel is planted first, followed by the forefoot, in sort of a rolling motion, like a wave.

Midfoot striking:  Both the ball and heel of the foot land at the same time.

Forefoot striking: The ball of the foot is planted first, followed by the toes and heel. (This is different than the forefoot strike that sprinters use, when they run, their heels hardly ever touch the ground.)

It turns out that there isn’t really one style that is better than any other, research actually suggests that running in your natural style is the most productive and energy efficient.  Your body knows what’s best for you.  The research reported in the article also suggests that complimenting your style with the most appropriate footwear is the combination for the best results.

Research behind the results of traditional running shoes suggests that approximately 75% of people that wear these shoes convert into heal strikers, leading researchers to hypothesize that this is behind repetitive stress injuries seen in the running population every year.  With the sole of a traditional running shoe being so think at the heel, no wonder most people turn to heal striking, its where there is the most cushion and comfort.  However, this divergence from a natural stride, which is hypothesized to have been comprised of a mostly forefoot strike population in one Harvard lab, has been the driving force behind getting back to nature and the “barefoot” experience.  There is no sound evidence that heel striking is inherently bad though, Dr. Hunter’s results, summarized in the NYT article, indicate that many distance athletes actually fall into the heel striking population.

So if there is a wide variety of acceptable styles, that are equally effective, depending on your natural stride, then what is actually more efficient, running with some cushioning or without?  The interesting results based on a study to answer this question are also summarized in the NYT article, only looking at midfoot and forefoot strikers, 10 millimeters of padding actually allowed runners to expend less energy than their barefoot partners.   This is an extremely interesting finding as previous research indicated that barefoot runners expended less energy than people running in traditional shoes, which is pretty logical as they’re toting around less weight, but some cushioning, according to Dr. Kram, does provide benefits.  So in the case of barefoot running I guess a little does go a long way.

So what’s better for you? Barefoot running? Traditional shoes? Minimal shoes?  Forefoot striking? Heel striking?

The answers at this point are all “it depends.”  As with much science today, there are many qualifiers, what is your natural gait? What surface are you running on?  Are you trying to switch gaits?

There isn’t a “correct” universal method, you have to do what is best for your body and use what you were given the most efficient way possible, which probably involves consulting a doctor and athletic shoe fitting specialist if you are serious about getting into running or trying to change your running equipment and/or style.




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