To be or not to be Barefoot. Is that the Question?

English: Barefoot hiking south of Penzberg, Ge...

English: Barefoot hiking south of Penzberg, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barefoot running and barefoot hiking have been discussed continuously since at least May 2009 when Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run was published and fueled nationwide interest in running very long distances barefooted, or, at least with only a flexible piece of rubber under one’s foot and nothing more. McDougall chronicled the ultra long distance runs of the Tarahumara Indian tribe of Mexico who’s members, men, women and children routinely logged long distance runs in a type of sandal.

And barefoot running received a further boost in 2010 when Harvard Evolutionary Biology professor Daniel Lieberman published an article in the respected science journal  Nature  about foot strike patterns in habitually barefoot runners compared to shod runners. In fact, Dr. Lieberman’s work was cited in McDougall’s book.

And since that time ‘barefoot’ has been a hundred million dollar word.

Every major shoe manufacturer and many less well known have marketed ‘barefoot’ running shoes, admittedly an oxymoron, Dr. Lieberman has noted. The shoe sole manufacturer Vibram introduced the iconic Vibram Five Fingers  a cross between a glove and a rubber soled moccasin. New Balance and others heavily marketed ‘minimalist’ shoes invoking themes suggestive of running barefoot.

And bloggers and newly minted experts cropped up overnight inveighing the virtues of the barefoot gospel. If it was good enough for Austrolapithicus, it must be good enough for us, was a general sentiment. Indeed, the modern running shoe as we know it only dates back to the 1970s (of the common era). And even according to anthropologists  who date shoe wearing among Homo Sapiens as far back as 40,000 or so years (Trinkhaus and Shang,  “Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear”, Journal of Archealogical Science 2008), ancient man’s shoes surely did not include motion controlling ethyl vinyl acetate heel cushions and a thermal polyurethane reinforced arch support.

And so authors Tam, et. al of the Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town rightly questioned many of the commonly accepted notions about barefooted running in their October 2013 article, “Barefoot running, an evaluation of current hypothesis, future research and clinical applications”, in the British Journal of Sports Medicine published first on-line.

A woman wears Vibram "Five Fingers" ...

A woman wears Vibram “Five Fingers” shoes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tam, et. al thoroughly review much of what is known about barefoot running, making their article an important one for someone new to the discussion about this ongoing phenomenon. Their central question remains, however,  Does running barefooted reduce the rate of injuries? And toward that end they quote Daniel Lieberman from his most recently published analysis on the topic. “How one runs is probably more important than what is on one’s feet, but what is on one’s feet may affect how one runs”, Lieberman writes near the beginning of a 2012 article.

However, what Lieberman writes at the end of his lucid, organized and thorough review of barefoot running is perhaps more cogent. In “What We Can Learn About Running From Barefoot Running: An Evolutionary Medical Perspective”, published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Review (April 2012), he writes: “My prediction – which I readily admit is nothing more than hypothesis that could be incorrect – is that shod runners with lower injury rates have a more barefoot style form…Likewise I predict that injury rates are higher among barefoot runners who either lack enough musculoskeletal strength in their calves and feet…or who still run as if they were shod with long strides and slow stride frequencies.”

It seems than that many questions about barefoot running remain outstanding. But some truths have been established. Lighter weight shoes do reduce the oxygen need of the runner with a one percent decreased need for every 100 gm decreased weight of the shoes. A mid foot or forefoot strike avoids the high pressure impacts of a heel strike. And shorter strides with a higher frequency cadence do seem to be correlated with a reduction in injuries.

So while one is vacillating about what shoes to buy, in the meanwhile run like a hunter gatherer may (or may not) have run: shorten your stride, land on the middle or front of your foot and increase the number of steps you take per minute. Unless of course you develop pain in your foot, leg, hip, back or elsewhere.  In that case, go back to whatever you were doing before!

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