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Article - 19 July 2011

Barefoot Running. Born To Run, But Since Forgotten how?

Dump the Nikes and start running barefoot - or at least get a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. I now hear this everywhere. It is certainly a very appealing idea to be able to throw off another layer of corporate branded sports equipment and do as nature intended, running barefoot through grassy meadows. There is already so much written on this subject already - prompted by Chris McDougall’s excellent book ‘Born To Run’ – that I am not going to add another load of words to a topic which is controversial, highly complex and underpinned as much by emotion as science. But I also want to arrive at a very definite and perhaps surprising conclusion. Let’s take a look.

Running and Dinner

Professor Daniel Liebermann, paleoanthropologist at Harvard University, is the high profile scientist behind the barefoot revolution. His mantra is that shoes are the fad, not barefoot running. The fact that he is now a paid consultant to Vibram would appear to weaken his credibility but it should not as he has spent more than thirty years in academia on his road to becoming an overnight success. I watched him present his case at the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) conference this year in Denver. His view is that NOT walking or running 9-15km per day, as our hunter gatherer forebears did while ranging for food, is abnormal for human beings. It is what we evolved as high quality food specialists, to do. The reason this may be so is that ‘food’ was able to run much faster than we humans. For example, humans run at less than 10 metres/second for less than 10-20 seconds.

“Not running 9-15km per day is abnormal”

The food (gazelles etc) were able to run at 20 metres/second for up to four minutes. So how to catch one? The answer is called ‘persistence hunting’ In effect tracking, chasing and hunting in the middle of the day when the sun was it was hottest over maybe 10-25km.  More specifically, according to Lieberman, it was by getting the prey to overheat. Because humans have a unique ability to cool ourselves on the move (sweating), whereas animals need to increase respiration (think of dogs panting in the heat) to keep cool which requires them to slow down, this presented hunter gatherer man with an ideal opportunity to kill his prey. It just meant that he had to follow it most of the day at a gentle trot, and then get it to run in sharp bursts until it was exhausted. This theory was first discussed in an Liebermann’s article in Nature magazine in 2004, ‘Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo’. But the conclusion that can be drawn is that perhaps the human body has been engineered to run through natural selection and that just maybe, natural selection is a better engineer than any engineer…  

The Biomechanics Shouldn’t Shock

Liebermann’s more recent research has examined the differences in gait between runners who usually wear shoes – like you and I – and runners that don’t – indigenous African’s for example. His main conclusion is that wearing shoes makes us more likely to land on our heels than if we run barefoot. In fact his findings show that more than 75% of shod runners are heel strikers. What is more, when those shod runners lose the shoes, they immediately become mid-foot strikers – and revert to what he calls a more ‘natural’ gait. Try it yourself. Run barefoot for ten seconds and I guarantee you will not land on your heels. Why? Because the shock is uncomfortable due to the fact that rather than being absorbed by the natural elastic springs in the Achilles muscle/tendon units and the feet, it is moved to the knees and hips which are not as compliant or as good at dampening the shock of landing. Surface hardness would also appear to be irrelevant – barefoot runners tend to land lightly and gently on any surface due to subconscious adjustment of our elastic springs as result of the sensory messages coming from the feet – the feet being sensate organs. This theory is underpinned by evidence that even wearing a thin pair of socks can significantly reduce single leg stability and balance compared with bare feet. If just socks can reduce the messages your feet is sending to your brain imagine what a pair of thick cushioned running shoes is doing.

The Evidence Is Around Here Somewhere..   

You may be forgiven for thinking then that this is now an open and shut case. It seems pretty straightforward - corporate machines have been trying to sell us equipment for the last thirty years (shoes to ‘improve’ foot mechanics and running performance are a fairly recent invention) that evolution had already engineered to a very high and effective standard. After all, there is no evidence that since Nike first introduced the ‘running shoe’ back in the 1970’s, injury rates have dropped or even that performance as a result of shoe technology, has improved. Therefore if we lose the rubber, get back to what we were designed for, everything is going to be just dandy. But stop right there -  the problem is that there is also a dearth of evidence that heel striking as a result of cushioned shoes results in higher rates of injury. Equally, there are no studies showing that running barefoot reduces the risk of injury either.
“Shoes are the fad, not barefoot running”

One study conducted in 1991 did find that injury rates were higher in wearers of expensive running shoes compared with cheaper running shoes, ie those devoid of ‘technological enhancements’, but much more is needed.  What about performance? Certainly the best distance runners in the world – Kenyan and East African runners – grow up running barefoot. Thereafter, due to sponsorship deals, they usually wear branded, albeit thin soled, light running shoes. Studies have shown that regular running shoes increase the oxygen cost of running by as much as 3-4%. This is a big number and suggests that perhaps the only real performance benefit to be gained from wearing shoes is related to the protection they afford. An injured athlete is also a very slow one!

So do we ‘Go Commando’ or not?

Like I said the beginning, this is a much more complex argument than you might initially think. If you are interested in more depth check out the excellent series of posts on the subject by Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas on their highly informative Science of Sport website. But from a practical point of view, what should we as endurance athletes do? Having trawled hard research, anecdotal evidence and from personal experience I have come to the following conclusion: How you run is more important than what is on your feet, but what is on your feet effects how you run. Let me explain. The human body has a wonderful ability to adapt. If you have been running for years in heavily cushioned shoes, landing on your heels with every step you have probably got quite efficient at doing just that. And if you now throw them away because the barefoot revolution has moved you, then I reckon you will get injured in the time it takes to say ‘antipronation midfoot torsional control system’.
How you run is more important than what is on your feet, but what is on your feet effects how you run.     

The change in loading on the structures of the foot and lower limbs when we move away from shoes is radical and like any change in stress applied to the body a period of adaptation is required. The thing is this period is probably much longer than you might think. It takes years for tendons and muscle attachments to fully adapt. There is no quick fix or way in which you can really accelerate this process which of course is not what we, in our modern society, like to hear. In all likelihood running in very minimal footwear (or even barefoot) is the way to go. It probably results in improved running economy (and therefore performance), it probably results in fewer injuries (when soft tissues have fully adapted) and it certainly feels fantastic. So try it – lose the Lacostes, rip off the Reeboks and assign the Asics to the bin but whatever you do progress Very Very gradually in the Vibrams. I mean literally. Add just one minute to your barefoot or minimalist runs but keep the faith. Listen carefully to what your body is telling you. It will take a year of discipline and patience before you are there. It may well be that you do not have the application or consistency to make the transition and that is ok. In that case you will be better served staying with the cushioned running shoes you have got proficient at using over the years. If it ain’t broke.. But for what it is worth, I am incorporating Vibram Five Finger running into my training (and sometimes overdoing it) in the belief that if I can build up to significant running time (ie 60mins) injury free, then the lower limb strength improvement will stand me in good stead for longer shod runs which I am unlikely to ever completely move away from due to cold weather, protection etc. I also believe that the Star Wars films were on to something with the concept of ‘The Force’ so feel free to disagree with anything I propose.

7 Practical Steps to Transitioning to Barefoot Running       

1.    Increase running time very gradually.

2.    Train yourself to land softly and quietly.

3.    Do not overstride. Work towards high frequency steps.

4.    Never train with pain.

5.    Begin by running in racing flats before going barefoot.

6.    Plan longterm. Moving to barefoot is a long process.

7.    Include core stabiliser and balance training in your plan.

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