It all started when our friend Jeremy over at the apparently moribund vastbranch posted on facebook how much he was enjoying his new barefoot running shoes. And since that sounded genuinely oxymoronic, I just had to google it and find out more about it. Wikipedia proved informative, as did Professor Daniel Liebermann’s lab website at Harvard. ‘Barefoot’ running shoes are designed NOT to restrict the movement of the foot and NOT cushion the impact of hitting the ground.
Daniel Liebermann studied the gaits of shod and barefoot runners and discovered that they run quite differently. Shod runners have a long stride length and strike the ground with the heel of the foot. Barefoot runners have a short stride and strike the ground with the front of the foot. The mechanics of the movements are quite different and the interesting thing is that the forefoot striking gait of barefoot runners results in less impact on the feet and legs. The foot flexes as it lands and the impact is spread out over first the front of the foot and then the heel, whereas when the heel lands first it takes all the impact concentrated into a small area.
I liked the sound of that. I need to go jogging a few times a week to make up for all the drinking I do, but was worried about the damage I might be doing to my joints. By running barefoot, paradoxically, I might do less damage to my joints from having no cushioning and better technique. In fact I don’t literally run barefoot but in Vibram five fingers shoes. That’s just because I’m worried about stepping on broken glass or stones. (I know, I should just pay attention to where I’m stepping, but I’m not sure I want to take the chance. I might try going genuinely barefoot once a week or so).
Barefoot runners like to turn the tables on the orthodoxy and ask, ‘is there any evidence that running shoes prevent injury?’ According to Craig Richards, there is no evidence that running shoes prevent injury. And Christopher McDougall, the author of the cult barefoot running book ‘Born to Run‘ claims, p. 172, based on a study by Bernard Marti, that runners in expensive high end running shoes are more likely to get injuries than runners in cheap trainers (“the most common variable among casualties wasn’t training surface, running speed, weekly mileage, or ‘competitive training motivation’. It wasn’t even body weight, or a history of previous injury: it was the price of the shoe” p. 172).
‘Fools rush in’, as they say, and I seemed to have rushed barefoot over to the barefoot bandwagon even though I don’t have the patience to educate myself in the scientific debate. There does seem to be a controversy brewing on online forums like Podiatry Arena. But we’ll see how it pans out. It can’t be too crazy if Harvard professors are doing it.