Are humans built to run barefoot?

Are humans built to run barefoot?

There are people who are convinced that barefoot runners never get injured

“The answer,” said Dr Stuart J Warden, an associate professor of physical therapy at Indiana University, “is that it probably does both.” Barefoot running remains as popular and contentious a topic among exercise scientists as it is among athletes, even though it is practiced by only a tiny subset of American runners.

These early-adopter runners, however, tend to be disproportionately enthusiastic and evangelical. Many cite the best seller ‘Born to Run’, by Christopher McDougall, which touts barefoot running, and claim that barefoot running cured them of various running-related injuries. “There are people who are convinced that barefoot runners never get injured,” said Daniel E Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard. But in the past year, anecdotal evidence has mounted that some runners, after kicking off their shoes, have wound up hobbled by newly acquired injuries.

Shoe culture

Most of us, after all, grew up wearing shoes. Shoes alter how we move. An interesting review article published this year in ‘The Journal of Foot and Ankle Research’ found that if you put children in shoes, their steps become longer than when they are barefoot, and they land with more force on their heels.

Similarly, when Dr Lieberman travelled recently to Kenya for a study published last year in ‘Nature’, he found that Kenyan schoolchildren who lived in the city and habitually wore shoes ran differently from those who lived in the country and were almost always barefoot.

Asked to run over a force platform that measured how their feet struck the ground, a majority of the urban youngsters landed on their heels and generated significant ground reaction forces or, in layman’s terms, pounding. The barefoot runners typically landed closer to the front of their feet and lightly, without generating as much apparent force.

Based on such findings, it would seem as if running barefoot should certainly be better for the body, because less pounding should mean less wear and tear.  The result can be an uptick in the forces moving through the leg, Dr Warren pointed out, since you’re creating as much force with each stride as before, but no longer have the cushioning of the shoe to help dissipate it.

So where does all of this new science leave the runner who’s been considering whether to ditch the shoes? The “evidence is not concrete for or against barefoot or shod running,” said Allison H Gruber, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts and lead author of the hertz study. “If one is not experiencing any injuries, it is probably best to not change what you’re doing.”

On the other hand, if you do have a history of running-related injuries or simply want to see what it feels like to run then “start slowly,” said Dr Lieberman. Humans may have been built to run barefoot, “but we did not evolve to run barefoot with bad form.”

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