If you suffer from foot pain, knee pain, or lower back pain of unknown origin, then it might be related to your shoes: Scientists recently held a conference in England to debate shoe running vs. barefoot running. Over the last five years, the barefoot movement has gained a lot of recognition among runners and experts in human biomechanics. I wrote about the merits of going barefoot last year. The movement was apparently started by the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. In it, he tells of time spent with members of Mexico’s indigent Tarahumara tribe, who routinely run long distances barefoot, often very fast, apparently without suffering the injuries that plague many avid runners in the developed world.
The issue is whether or not putting on a pair of running shoes implicitly causes the person to run in an unnatural way; a way that goes against nature’s design, due to a “false sense of security” offered by the thick cushioning of the shoes, especially in the heel and arch.
In a study published in the scientific journal Nature last year, Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biology professor at Harvard University, sought to find out how our ancestors, who ran and hunted for millions of years in bare feet or simple moccasins, coped with the impact of the foot hitting the ground.
Lieberman and colleagues from Britain and Kenya studied runners who had always run barefoot, those who had always worn shoes, and runners who had abandoned shoes.
They found that barefoot endurance runners often land on the fore-foot (the ball of the foot) before bringing down the heel, while shoe runners mostly rear-foot (heel) strike, prompted by the raised and cushioned heels of modern running shoes.
The study further discovered that barefoot runners incur less collision forces on their feet compared to shoe runners, despite the heel cushioning of the shoe, and that they use their calf muscles more efficiently.
As of this date, there isn’t a large scale study that gives definitive data on what is better for the human body, going barefoot or wearing shoes. People are taking sides based on their beliefs, biases and experiences. Major athletic shoe companies generally are against the barefoot running idea, for obvious reasons; but some are experimenting with “minimalist” shoes to capture this growing market. These are shoes that offer protection to the feet but with the least amount of restriction.
My take on this: it makes a lot of sense to walk and run barefoot. It is a natural act, and it’s tough to argue against nature because it has its ways of cancelling out bad traits. Our human ancestors walked and ran barefoot for millions of years, and were fine. I believe that walking barefoot exercises the muscles and small joints of the foot and takes more of the load off the knees, hips and pelvis in doing so. On the contrary, wearing shoes binds the feet, prevents the foot joints from doing their job of distributing the body weight and cushioning the shock, and makes the leg and back muscles work in a less efficient manner. It is easy to see how this can result in lower back problems. So, walk barefoot more than you currently do– not just in the house, but on pavement, hilly terrain, and the nearest park. Then, when you feel that your feet have acclimated to the new sensations, give barefoot running a try!