Above: Barefoot runner (©iStockphoto.com/Gosiek-B)

Do you own a great pair of running shoes? You know, the kind with a nice thick cushioned heel? If so, your shoes may actually have a negative effect on the way you run.

Did you know? The foot of a runner wearing running shoes on a hard surface typically lands with an initial heel strike, while the foot of a barefoot runner lands with a springier step on the middle or ball of the foot.Recent research, presented at the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons by Dr. Scott Mullen, an orthopaedic surgeon at The University of Kansas Hospital, shows that the biomechanics (forces acting on the body in motion) of adolescent runners were “dramatically” altered depending on the type of shoes they were wearing, or whether they were wearing shoes at all! The study used motion capture technology to measure stride length, heel height during the posterior (backward) swing phase, and foot-to-ground contact. The test subjects were adolescent track athletes running on a treadmill in large heel trainers, in track flats, and barefoot. The tests were conducted at four different speeds.

A pair of Vibram FiveFingers "barefoot" shoes. Click to enlarge (Guttorm Flatabø)

This study found that what you wear on your feet affects how your foot hits the ground—the foot strike—in biomechanical terms. In particular, a heavily cushioned heel caused a heel-strike running pattern 69.8% of the time, regardless of speed. By contrast, the heel was the first point of contact with the ground only 35% of the time in running flats. The figure dropped to less than 30% in barefoot runners. These results raise health concerns, since heel-strike running distributes more force to the hips and knees, which over a lifetime could result in more hip and knee problems. Changing to flat shoes or running barefoot causes the forefoot to strike first more often. According to Dr. Mullen, this foot strike may be better for a runner’s health over the course of a lifetime. Does this mean we should all be running in track flats or abandon running shoes altogether?

Did you know? Specialized sports equipment was first developed in the mid-1800s alongside the development of modern track and field events. Prior to that, people adapted street clothes and regular footwear for athletic competitions.Barefoot running has a long history. The ancient Greeks ran barefoot—and naked! Perhaps the most famous barefoot runner of the modern era was Abebe Bikila, who won gold in the marathon at the Rome Olympics of 1960. South African Zola Budd also ran barefoot in Los Angeles in 1984. In the past 10 years, there has been a noticeable increase barefoot running, with several marathon runners, like Todd Byers from Seattle, leading the trend. A 2009 book by Christopher McDougall called, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, has also help spark interest in barefoot running. Today, the revival of barefoot running has led most sport shoe companies to produce minimalist running shoes, including so-called “toe” shoes. One example is Vibram’s FiveFingers shoes, which are intended to mimic barefoot running.

Although barefoot running and minimalist running shoes may be trendy, don’t throw away your traditional runners too fast! Dr. Mullen and others have cautioned that more research is still needed to examine the effects of shoes on foot strike. This is because injuries can happen both with and without shoes. For example, running barefoot has been shown to cause stress fractures in the front part of the foot. Obviously, it also leaves the foot exposed to the elements and potential bruising, abrasions, and punctures.

Barefoot shoes also present potential injury issues. A recent study at Brigham Young University, in Utah, showed that experienced runners who transitioned to minimalist shoes over a 10-week period had a greater incidence of stress injuries and bone marrow edema (inflammation causing fluid build-up in the bone) than the control group, which used traditional running shoes.

The science community appears to agree that changing from traditional running shoes to minimalist shoes or barefoot running can abruptly change the biomechanics of running. And since our bodies do not automatically change our running gait to match our shoes, proper training and conditioning over time is still very important to running safely and injury-free.

Learn More!

Cushioned Heel Running Shoes May Alter Adolescent Biomechanics, Performance (Science Daily/American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons) Going barefoot feels natural to Seattle Marathon participant (Terry Wood, Seattle Times) How Tennis Shoes Came to Be (Trail End State Historic Site) Running: Biomechanics & Common Injuries (Balmain Sports Medicine) The History of Athletic Shoes Infographic (Schuler Shoes) The history of running shoes (BBC Sport) The Olympics and Bare Feet: What Have We Learned? (Science Daily/University of Central Florida) The Shocking Truth About Running Shoes (Science Now/AAAS) UNH Barefoot Running Research (YouTube/University of New Hampshire) Whoa There! Quick Switch to 'Barefoot' Shoes Can Be Bad to the Bone (Science Daily/Brigham Young University)

Laura Brown

Laura is an Education Specialist with Let’s Talk Science. With a background in agricultural sciences and visual arts, she is interested in most everything, from pigs to Picasso! She developed her love of science and technology from her parents and teachers.

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