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The art and act of running is one of the oldest sports. Early hunter and gatherers relied upon their ability to run barefoot long distances to catch wild game through one of the oldest known hunting techniques, called persistence hunting. Beginning some two million years ago, our ancestors would chase animals for up to five hours and twenty miles until the animal tired out and was force to take a break. That’s when our ancestors would come in for the kill.
It’s in our DNA
Running is literally in our DNA, but unfortunately for running shoe manufacturers, their new and constantly improved shoes tailored for runners are not. Running shoes are not only unnecessary most of the time, but may be less safe, more damaging, counter productive and inefficient compared to running barefoot or with a minimal barefoot style shoe.
The most natural and oldest form of running, barefoot running, has made a comeback in the past few decades and studies are now showing that barefoot or minimal shoe running produces less injuries and may be less damaging to the body when compared to running with bulky running shoes.
Ethiopian Olympian, Abebe Bikila, help revive barefoot running after he won the Olympic marathon in Rome using barefoot techniques. Other prominent barefoot runner of the 20th century include Olympic runners Bruce Tulloh, and Zola Budd. Historically, you can look no further than the tribes of Mexico and Africa who have been successfully and continuously practicing barefoot running since the beginning of their existence, some even preferring the heel strike technique. Historians believe that claim that Ancient Greek runners also ran barefoot.
In 2011, the United States Air Force began a barefoot running program to support barefoot running enthusiasts among their ranks. Lieutenant Colonel Mark Cucuzzella, who is a leader in the Air Force’s barefoot running program, wore minimalist shoes when he won the 2011 United States Air Force Marathon.
A 2010 study published in Nature magazine showed that barefoot runners who used proper barefoot running techniques generated smaller collision forces than runners wearing running shoes.
Lead author of the study, Harvard University Professor, Daniel Lieberman, who teaches human evolutionary biology, said,
“most people today think barefoot running is dangerous and hurts, but actually you can run barefoot on the world’s hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort and pain.”
Proper barefoot running techniques are imperative if one wishes to benefit and avoid injury. Instead of striking with your heel first as most do when using running shoes, barefoot runners greatly decreases injury rates when the runner strikes with the forefoot or middle of the foot first. Research has shown that heel first runners strike the ground up to three times harder than barefoot runners. A barefoot runner should also take shorter steps, increase their step rate, and rely on the springing action of the foot’s natural arch. The natural, forgiving and shock absorbent composition of the foot actually works best when not restrained by unnatural padding.
“People who don’t wear shoes when they run have an astonishingly different strike. 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 the heel-strike,” said Lieberman.
The foot of a barefoot runner undergoes musculature changes as a result training the barefoot. The longitudinal arch decreases in length, which suggests the activation of muscles not usually activated through running with shoes. According to a report published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the activation of these muscles dampen impact and remove stress from the connective tissue that supports the arch on bottom of the foot. Not only does your body undergo muscular changes due to barefoot running, but it may help your body conserve more energy. A report titled “Mechanical comparison of Barefoot and Shod Running,” published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, found that due to better use of the muscle elasticity, oxygen consumption was about four percent lower in barefoot runners when compared to those runners wearing shoes.
A study in Sport Science Journal claims that shod running increases the risk of injuries such as ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis, and shin splints, and reduce proprioceptive and tactile sensitivity. Other studies have indicated that running shoes are up to 38 percent more stressful on knee joints. The American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that running shoes can “increase joint torques at the hip, knee and ankle.” Astonishingly enough, their study showed that running in high heels was less like to cause injuries than running in tennis shoes.
However, barefoot running is not the best or safest method in every situation. Running shoes offer much better protection from glass, stones, nails and other debris that can puncture feet or cause bruising to barefoot runners, even after the skin has thickened. It can also be difficult and uncomfortable to run barefoot in cold temperatures. Experts recommend specific types of pavement over others for barefoot runners. For instance, if you have to run barefoot on a hard surface, asphalt offers much more leeway than concrete.
And there are definitely studies which claim that barefoot running can be quite damaging to your body. One such study, led by Brigham Young University Assistant Professor of Exercise Science, Dr. Sarah Ridge, examined these potential barefoot running injuries. MRI scans showed that more than half of the runners using minimalist hoses displayed signs of bone injuries in their feet. The researchers concluded that those transitioning to barefoot running should begin very slowly to avoid such injuries.
When new to barefoot or minimal shoe running, it can be difficult to pay attention to proper technique and because most people who switch have conditioned themselves for decades to run heel first, it can be a hard habit to break. If you barefoot run heel first, you are much more likely to injure yourself.
For those wanting to attempt barefoot running, it’s probably best to purchase a pair of minimal running shoes such as the Vibram FiveFinger shoes, which conform around your foot, offer additional padding and act like an extra layer of thick, rubbery skin. The U.S. Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard recently approved these types of shoes for use during physical training.
Do you ever run barefoot? What have been your experiences?