The fitness world is always eager to embrace the latest fitness trend. Tae-Bo once swept the nation, Cross-Fit gyms are to numerous to count and many were seen tottering down the street in MBT African tribe inspired shoes that promised to eliminate sore knees and backs. The only thing that surpassed the fervor over which these new trends were adopted was the speed at which they fell from favor.
After reading the popular book Born To Run, many rushed out to buy barefoot/minimalist shoe as the author offered compelling evidence that we were meant to run in a manner that has the front of the foot striking the ground first.
Research from Harvard biomechanist Dr. Daniel Lieberman seems to support the evolutionary nature of this running style as he observed that when people run without any shoes they tend to land on the front or middle part of the foot. Why? Because hitting the heel first is like a mini-collision with each step as the heel acts like a brake each time the foot hits the ground. He found that the force was 2-2.5 times bodyweight when a runner struck the ground with the heel first but forefoot strikers only experience one-third that force when running.
Supporters of barefoot running claim that shoe companies have attempted to cushion and arch-support the shoe to disperse some of this force but by doing so, changed runners to heel-strikers. Barefoot proponents say that cushioned heel strike running style enabled by the modern running shoe leads to overuse injuries of the foot, ankle and knee after miles and miles of running. While the very purpose of the highly cushioned, elevated heel running shoe was to lessen the chance of injury, it would seem that it created a running style that increased the force and stress experienced by the lower leg when running.
While science behind barefoot/minimalist running is generally well accepted, its significance for runners is not. The first issue is that barefoot shoes don’t automatically confer a change in running mechanics as those heel striking runners that switch to a barefoot shoe generally continue to heel strike, despite the change of shoe. The assumed advantage of barefoot running is only for those that change how they land with each step.
The bigger issue is that despite clear evidence that landing on the front or middle of the foot when running lessens the impact, a corresponding decrease in injury does not seem to occur. Additionally, changing how one runs may not offer any performance advantage. Little yet is known about the long-term effects of switching to a barefoot running style. Does it reduce injury? Should the injury prone switch or those that run injury-free? All of these questions need to be answered before the sports medicine community embraces barefoot running.