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Running Shoes? Running Barefoot? Science Hasn’t Figured it Out Yet

30 Mar, 2015

By: Tracey Schelmetic

In the world of distance running, there is an old debate that pits the benefits of running in shoes against the benefits of running barefoot. Once a bit of an alien concept to runners in Western countries, the images of African distance runners running barefoot made many people think: since human feet were designed by evolution to work without shoes, could the process really be more efficient?

While many runners will have an opinion on the subject one way or another, science hasn’t really been able to come to a definitive conclusion. As it turns out, there are significant pros and cons to barefoot running and using running shoes.

At least one study found that the amount of time that a runner’s feet were in contact with the ground – an important determinant for speed – as well as stride frequency, were significantly shorter with barefoot running. However, the same study discovered that the average stride length, also an important determinant for speed, was significantly shorter in barefoot running.

Another study found that impact stress on the runner’s body was actually lower in barefoot running, which many people might find to be counter-intuitive (after all, expensive running shoes contain space-age shock absorption materials).

This research, published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine in 2005, concluded that, “When performed on a sufficient number of steps, barefoot running leads to a reduction of impact peak in order to reduce the high mechanical stress occurring during repetitive steps. This neural-mechanical adaptation could also enhance the storage and restitution of elastic energy at ankle extensors level.”

Results such as these, however, may depend on whether the runner relies more heavily on the front of the foot or the heel of the foot during strides. (Barefoot proponents claim that humans were made to run on the front of the foot, and cushioned running shoes are responsible for forcing runners to run on their heels, which cuts their efficiency and raises the chances for injury.)

Also, there may be benefits beyond speed and mechanical stress, but these are controversial. According to Tom Kelso, writing for the Web site Breaking Muscle, two of seven studies that have compared barefoot and running in shoes on treadmills have found statistically significant differences in oxygen usage, as measured by V02. One of these studies found that V02 was 5.7 greater running with shoes than with barefoot running, concluding that runners who wear shoes simply need to work harder than those who do not. Five studies found so significant difference in oxygen usage between running in shoes and running barefoot.

Several years ago, the so-called ‘toe shoe’ or ‘barefoot sports shoe’ made its debut. Models like the Vibram Five Fingers, Fila Skele-toes and Adidas Adipure Trainers flooded the market. The purpose was clear: cater to the barefoot runner crowd while protecting the athletes (at least somewhat) from injury caused by objects underfoot. Marketing did a good job and the shoes enjoyed tremendous popularity, although not as much at the elite performance level as manufacturers might have hoped.

Obviously, barefoot running isn’t for everyone, and there are proponents of both running shoes and barefoot running who get surprisingly heated in defense of their respective opinions. Certainly, it isn’t a possibility for people in many climates during colder (or hotter) seasons, and it’s likely always out of the question for people who live in large cities, particularly those cities whose residents don’t always follow directives to curb their dogs. But where it is possible, it may offer a viable alternative to runners who believe that “returning to nature” will help them gain speed and efficiency.

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