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Running barefoot is better, researchers find

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running barefoot better than shoesMother Nature has outpaced science once again: the bare human foot is better for running than one cushioned by sneakers. What about those $125 high-tech running shoes with 648 custom combinations? Toss ‘em, according to a new study published online January 27 in the journal Nature (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group).

"Most people today think barefoot running is dangerous and hurts," Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, said in a prepared statement. "But actually you can run barefoot on the world’s hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort and pain…It might be less injurious than the way some people run in shoes."

Lieberman and his group used 3-D infrared tracking to record and study the running and strike style of three groups of runners: people who had always run barefoot, people who had always run with shoes, and people who had switched from shoe to shoeless.

They found that when runners lace up their shmancy sneakers and take off, about 75 to 80 percent land heel-first. Barefoot runners—as Homo sapiens had evolved to be—usually land toward the middle or front of the food. "People who don’t wear shoes when they run have an astonishingly different strike," Lieberman said.

Without shoes, landing on the heel is painful and can translate into a collision force some 1.5 to 3 times body weight. "Barefoot runners point their toes more at landing," which helps to lessen the impact by "decreasing the effective mass of the foot that comes to a sudden stop when you land," Madhusudhan Venkadesan, an applied mathematics and human evolutionary biology postdoctoral researcher at Harvard who also worked on the study, said in a prepared statement. But as cushioned kicks have hit the streets and treadmills, that initial pain has disappeared, and runners have changed their stride, leading to a way of high-impact running that human physiology wasn’t evolved for—one that the researchers posit can lead to a host of foot and leg injuries.

 

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that our bodies are still better engineered than new-fangled trainers. When taking into account our ancient ancestors, "humans have engaged in endurance running for millions of years," the researchers wrote in their study. "But the modern running shoe was not invented until the 1970s."

Another recent study, by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and published last December in the academy’s journal, PM&R, found that wearing running shoes "increased joint torques at the hip, knee and ankle," when compared to barefoot running. Even a jog in high heels was better for joints than specialized tennis shoes.

Despite the growing movement of barefoot (or more lightly shod) runners, many researchers are calling for more evaluation before all those sweaty sneakers are abandoned. "There is no hard proof that running in shoes… causes injuries," William Jungers, a professor of anatomical sciences at Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY, wrote in a commentary that accompanies the new study. But, he asserted, "In my view there is no compelling evidence that it prevents them either." And as a boost to the barefoot argument, he added: "There are data that implicate shoes more generally as a plausible source of some types of chronic foot problems."

So perhaps you can skip those sneaks, say the study authors. "All you need is a few calluses," Lieberman said.

Image comparing the footfall of two Kenyan runners from the study courtesy of Benton et al. The runner on the left has worn shoes most of his life and lands on his heal, whereas the runner on the right has primarily run barefoot and lands on the ball of her foot.

 

 

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  1. 1. PTOLOMYdotcom 4:20 pm 01/27/2010

    Running barefoot can only work if you’ve been doing it for your entire life. Having run many miles with cheep sneakers years ago, I attempted barefoot running on pavement, and the result was that I wasn’t able to walk, much less run, without seriously swollen foot pain that lasted a week. Just like the domestication of cats and dogs, our feet have seemingly become a whole new softer breed. Do at your own risk.

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  2. 2. PTOLOMYdotcom 4:21 pm 01/27/2010

    Running barefoot can only work if you’ve been doing it for your entire life. Having run many miles with cheep sneakers years ago, I attempted barefoot running on pavement, and the result was that I wasn’t able to walk, much less run, without seriously swollen foot pain that lasted a week. Just like the domestication of cats and dogs, our feet have seemingly become a whole new softer breed. Do at your own risk.

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  3. 3. Pani 5:03 pm 01/27/2010

    I have been reading up on barefoot running for a while. From what I’ve gathered, because running barefoot uses different muscles, you have to slowly get into running this way to adjust yourself to it. As for terrain problems, try getting Vibram FiveFingers, which are sort of like gloves but for feet. http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/

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  4. 4. m2gym 5:21 pm 01/27/2010

    Thanks Daniel for confirming what we’ve been saying for years – and even flat sandals are better! Most running shoes also prevent the proper "pre-tensioning" of the arch of the foot (you can see the upturned and "splayed" toes in your video). As you wrote, the ankle dorsiflexes as the heel drops under control of the triceps surae muscles and the Achilles tendon. You also briefly nothed the problem of cushioned shoes that discombobulates our proprioception and leads to joint instability.

    A more general problem is that we genrally wear shoes with heels (yes, even men’s shoes and most running shoes even if they look flat have an internal heel on the insole). That completely changes our body alignment, making worse the tight hamstrings and shortened abs that we get from sitting all day. And promoting the "lean forward snd stumble" style of walking that doesn’t properly use the hamstrings, quads and glutes and leads to multiple joint problems. Perhaps you’d video analyse this as well. Unfortunatlee going from heeled shoes to flat, or negative heel is not something to do quickly since it takes a long time for the now tight Achilles to lengthen, and the muscles to regain their strength and response.

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  5. 5. drchuck 8:16 pm 01/27/2010

    If you’ve been using the waffles all your life, yeah, you have to ease into it. The first few times I used my VFFs, I couldn’t go down stairs for days. Now, I’m up to about 10-20 miles a week working towards 50. So get into it gradually…

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  6. 6. PortlandRolfer 9:29 pm 01/27/2010

    For those who don’t want to go barefoot, a good option is a minimalistic shoe…. no heel, no arch, very flexible sole. If you can feel the ground through the shoe, you will step more appropriately. For instance, Columbia Sportswear makes shoes designed for water sports that fit this criteria. If you are in Oregon, you can attend one of my short classes on healthy footwear.

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  7. 7. Victor1283 10:57 pm 01/27/2010

    Is running barefoot, or using a minimalistic shoe, good if you have severe flat foot? My feet are so flat they pick up suction of hard floors and make a flatulent noise.

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  8. 8. eswarjj 7:31 am 01/28/2010

    You also have the alternative of running/ walking with Vivo Barefoot from Terraplana (Clark Shoes). Last spring, I did not know about these "toe-gloves" thing mentioned above. I ran real bare feet. Felt good but the terrain problems took time to adjust to. Plus the cold. So, now, I bought barefoot shoes. And I got one for office too.

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  9. 9. krabcat 9:14 am 01/28/2010

    i use to run barefoot all the time but then we moved and i did not feel safe doing so. we moved from the middle of nowhere to "the city", which would probably not be considered more than a large town. i have seen too much glass and other sharp objects to try it around here. but after this i might make some minimalist shoes, maybe with a little thicker souls though.

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  10. 10. niel_malan 9:52 am 01/28/2010

    Having grown up barefoot in Africa, I don’t have much good to say for shoes, running or otherwise.

    The soles of the feet naturally grows tough and hard when it is exposed to the natural environment, be it by walking or running. Wearing shoes leads to the loss of this tough sole. Unfortunately a thin, pink sole is probably also a sign of social status, so going barefoot faded from advanced societies.

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  11. 11. Homer 1:37 pm 01/28/2010

    "Running barefoot can only work if you’ve been doing it for your entire life. "

    Wrong. You must work up to it gradually, just like any other athletic endeavor. Would you say that weightlifters can only lift big weights if they did it their entire lives, just because you cannot lift that weight on Day 1? Of course not, you must gradually work up to that level of physical work and adaptation.

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  12. 12. duck 2:29 pm 01/28/2010

    One person’s bad experience with one try at barefoot running on pavement does not prove "Running barefoot can only work if you’ve been doing it for your entire life," as the first poster on here put it. I have been running since 1977 in conventional shoes, and in 1986 started using very rigid orthotics and kept using them even as shoes with more and more motion control came on the market; I just put the orthotics in those shoes and things were basically OK. In spring 2009 I started experimenting with Vibram Five Fingers, starting with fairly short runs in grass and sand a couple of times per week. Within a few months I was running "barefoot" every day, up to two hours at a time. I mostly avoid hard surfaces, but by no means do I avoid them entirely. (Even in conventional running shoes I mostly avoid hard surfaces.) I have far less runnign pain and far more running enjoyment than I have had in years. I am in my mid 40′s, weigh 180 pounds, have very high arches, and an awkward gait. So if it works for me, I would encourage just about anyone to try it, but try it carefully and sensibly; ease into it very gradually, but by all means try it.

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  13. 13. Hermit 2:48 pm 01/28/2010

    I used to run woods trails in moccasins and it was great.

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  14. 14. darkenney 8:51 pm 01/28/2010

    I run barefoot – or as close to barefoot as conditions allow. I love it for so many reasons, not the least of them is it makes me feel like a kid again. Critical, critical in this – you absolutely cannot go cold turkey – one day shoes next day barefoot. You need to make a very slow transition in order to build up the foot and leg strength for the new mechanics. Start just by switching to lighter, less cushioned shoes. Gradually make them your primary running shoes, and then gradually get lighter and lighter shoes. The full process could take 5-8 months, but well worth it.

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  15. 15. space oasis 11:05 pm 01/28/2010

    Usually I run with shoes but last week, I ran barefoot on a treadmill. Usually I can’t run for very long but going barefoot took way less effort and I ended up running like that for 20 minutes straight. I had to consciously adjust how my feet landed since landing on my heel had so much impact that the whole machine quaked loudly. I started pointing my toes and shifting my weight by the hips and lengthening my stride. It was unbelievably comfortable that I kept upping the pace.

    I didn’t realize that it used such different muscles. I’m relieved because my calves have been sore and walking uncomfortable– though when I sprint, I don’t have much trouble!

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  16. 16. woundedduck 1:27 am 01/29/2010

    Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall tells the story of Mexican Indians who run only wearing simple sandals. I’ve also given Chi Running a go and mid-foot striking is hell on your calves–but it beats chronic Achilles tendonitis.

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  17. 17. ryan850 9:15 am 01/29/2010

    Why are we talking about running barefoot, it seems to me the study is showing that our stride when wearing shoes is not good for us. Seems like the proper fix is to keep wearing the protective shoes, but change the stride. What do you think?

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  18. 18. Ralf123 1:31 pm 01/29/2010

    You can change your stride but it is difficult. I changed from heel strike to forefoot strike 20 years ago, in normal shoes.
    Since I developed Achilles problems a year ago I’ve been running barefoot from time to time and it has improved things but I’m not completely back. I’ll try to run barefoot full time.

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  19. 19. ramanan50 11:08 pm 01/29/2010

    Use of shoes increases stress on the back and the spinal cord,especially high heels.As to the problem of feet hurting when switching over to barefoot running after running with sneakers, apply camphor dissolved in heated coconut oil
    Continue running with bare foot.It takes some time for the feet to get adjusted.

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  20. 20. 1sportsdoc 12:38 pm 02/1/2010

    Bravo!! Great to see more science which supports what many runners have known for years. I’m a runner and I see many runner patients; I would say that 80-90% of the injured runners I see are heel strikers. Converting them to a forefoot runner is what gets them out of the injury cycle, and part of that is getting them running barefoot on grass. The Five Fingers are a great tool for the runner looking to get back to the basics. Caution: as with any NEW exercise/movement/intervention … you MUST come into it gently and slowly. Funny thing, I fit custom orthotics in my office and use to Rx them for runners; now, rarely do I Rx them since transitioning to forefoot running as in barefooting.

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  21. 21. ALS777 12:17 pm 02/3/2010

    Running barefoot is good for learning forefoot landing. After you learned it running barefoot, you can return to running in shoes but with forefoot landing or midsole landing. Running on a treadmill or on a running track is much safer than running on the streets, barefoot or in shoes.

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  22. 22. Cpo USN Ret - Joseph C Moore 5:00 pm 02/3/2010

    Barefoot? OK, but even the shy, reclusive Tarahumara Indians (who sometimes run a hundred or more miles) wear thin sandals (that they make specifically for their own foot).

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  23. 23. dlabree14 12:20 am 02/4/2010

    I actually started with a flat foot and minimal shoe. It takes time, but I have actually gained an arch from this running style. It does take time and working up to. Make sure you study the running method; toes up, foot landing on 3rd and 4th met… Start with lower distances and pay attention, then extend as you get the muscles and style down.

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  24. 24. citicrab 12:07 pm 02/4/2010

    t

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  25. 25. citicrab 12:18 pm 02/4/2010

    I used to do some track in college and we were tought to land on the front section of the foot, no matter the shoes. After many years, when I resumed jogging, I discovered I could no longer maintain the posture from my track days – my legs/feet would just not support me. So it seems it’s a matter of using the right posture (you stay "high" on your feet all the time, the soles may just be touching the surface) and maintaining enough strength – not neccessarily going to barefoot.

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  26. 26. JosephFroncioni 11:14 am 02/8/2010

    I am an orthopedic surgeon and a runner and I have been advocating barefoot or minimalist shoe running for years. Readers might be interested in an article I wrote on the topic some time ago:

    http://www.quickswood.com/my_weblog/2006/08/athletic_footwe.html#more

    Happy running!

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  27. 27. JosephFroncioni 11:16 am 02/8/2010

    I am an orthopedic surgeon and a runner and I have been advocating barefoot or minimalist shoe running for years. Readers might be interested in an article I wrote on the topic some time ago:

    http://www.quickswood.com/my_weblog/2006/08/athletic_footwe.html#more

    Happy running!

    Link to this
  28. 28. imbvl 8:08 pm 09/14/2010

    There was a report about 3-4 years ago that some researchers had put accelerometers and strain gages on the joints, tibia, etc., of runners, and had them run in various types of footwear, and barefoot, on various surfaces. The results were that it’s better on the joints and bones to run barefoot on sand or grass, than on any surface, in any shoes. I’ve been running barefoot on the beach ever since, and am doing fine. I’m 71 ears old.

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  29. 29. Running Coach 9:59 am 09/30/2010

    barefoot running certainly makes you run with better form, i.e. landing under the center of gravity and pushing off with your quads as opposed to pulling yourself forward with your hamstrings. video form analysis can help runners who want to keep their shoes on and still minimize injury.

    Coach Ken
    http://www.5speedrunning.com

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  30. 30. Black Running Shoes 10:59 pm 10/25/2010

    Running Barefoot sound like a bit scary to me having worn running shoes or boots my entire life but there sure seems to be a whole lot of people singing out about how great it is & how they can now run injury free due to this new barefoot running style. I think I would have to have a good chat to someone who’s gone from running in shoes there whole lives like me, to running in bare feet before I seriously considered giving it a go!

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  31. 31. hollim 11:49 pm 06/2/2011

    "Even a jog in high heels was better for joints than specialized tennis shoes."

    Really? I would rather have my reliable <a href="http://www.besttoningshoesreviews.com/">toning shoes</a>

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  32. 32. eli_mann 4:15 pm 01/4/2012

    Over the course of a summer I went from ultra distance running over extremely rugged terrain to being unable to jog 2 miles. 2 years followed, with visits to two sports medicine docs, extensive physical therapy, and participation in a study focused on “male runner knee pain,” which allowed me to pick the brains of several experts. The PT (which I spent 1 hr per day on) helped, but I could only get up to 2 hours w/o pain.

    I’ve been running barefoot and in minimalist shoes for 3 months. I’m up to several hours over rugged terrain with no pain to speak of. Who knows what’s around the next bend, but so far so good!

    I find that it’s not just the muscles that must be trained, but the technique as well. The learning curve is steep…I can notice improvements in my technique over the course of a single run. Oh, and the shoes are wonderfully light…makes you feel like a gazelle. Or maybe that’s the joy of running again :0)

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  33. 33. Nathan1324 1:16 am 03/19/2014

    I’m currently beginning the early stages of writing a research paper on barefoot running versus sneaker running. I’m taken back by the overwhelming positive testimonies. It makes complete sense that with proper acclimation, our bodies would respond so well to barefoot running. I am inspired!

    Link to this

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