Thirty to seventy percent of runners suffer from repetitive stress injuries every year and experts can’t agree on how to prevent them. Barefoot running is seen bysome as an antidote.
On the surface, barefoot running makes a lot of sense: Humans went shoeless for thousands of years, the modern running shoe wasn’t invented until the 1970’s, and athletic shoes have actually been shown to cause more ankle sprains than when barefoot. And every runner has run barefoot on the beach, haven’t we? After all, we weren’t born with shoes on.
But a recent study conducted at Brigham Young University and published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, has turned up some interesting data. Experienced runners who averaged 15-30 miles a week in running shoes were recruited for the study. Half of the group acted as a control and continued to run in their normal fashion in shoes. The other runners went shoeless-style in Vibram Five Fingers barefoot style shoes and were instructed to wear them for one mile during the first week, two miles the second, three the third, and then as much as they liked.
After ten weeks, each runner took an MRI (one was also done prior to the study). The results showed that the majority of the barefoot-style runners were showing significant bone edema, indicating early injury (a small amount of edema is normal, the bone’s response to training). One runner had a stress fracture in the heel bone, and another had a metatarsal fracture(the long foot bones). Almost all of the runners in the barefoot style group were running fewer miles at the end of the study than they were at the start. Most likely because their feet hurt.
Interestingly, our style of running changes when we go shoeless. When we run in shoes, we tend to hit the ground heel-first. But when we go shoeless, we land mid-foot or forefoot, because it minimizes the impact to our feet. In fact, when we hit the ground heel-first, it’s with three times the force. Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard University professor who specializes in research on barefoot running, has found that forefoot-striking runners have lower risks of repetitive stress injuries. On the other hand, the Associated Press reported that doctors have noticed an uptick in the number of injuries associated with barefoot running, including tendinitis in the achilles and metatarsal stress fractures.
It appears that most foot injuries incurred by barefoot runners are a too much, too fast problem. They whip their shoes off and pack on the miles. Unfortunately, their feet have been in shoes since they were infants and the bones can’t handle the stress. The key to safely running barefoot appears to be a slow conditioning process to allow your foot structure plenty of time to adjust to the new demands.
We neither suggest nor endorse barefoot running. Just letting you know the latest.
If you’re interested in finding out more on barefoot running, the foremost expert is Daniel Leiberman at Harvard. His website is here.