The best running shoes are your feet

Nike's new prototype- the retro model: The running foot is soooo 2 million years ago, but you wait long enough and everything comes back.
Nike's new prototype- the retro model: The running foot is soooo 2 million years ago, but you wait long enough and everything comes back.Courtesy perpetualplum
Have you ever run barefoot? It’s great! I’ve never really thought about why I like it, but some really cool biomechanics research coming out of Harvard suggests that there may be some evolutionary reasons for my enjoyment. Homo sapiens and our early ancestors have engaged in endurance running for more than a million years, and have done so with no shoes, or with minimal footwear (sandals, moccasins, etc.). The researchers wanted to know how these early humans (and some humans today, let’s not forget) were able to run comfortably and safely sans shoes. Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, and his crew found that barefoot runners land either on the balls of their feet or mid-foot (the balls of their foot and heel at the same time), while shod runners land on their heels, or heel-strike, to use the lingo. This makes sense when you look at the structure of our feet; our strong, high arch acts like a spring when we run, and this spring can only be loaded when we first land on our forefoot. It wasn’t until the 1970’s when running shoes came equipped with highly cushioned heels that it began to seem normal to run heel-to-toe. (Some research even suggests that not just running shoes, but all shoes are detrimental to our foot health)
With some super advanced equipment (Harvard undergrads are so lucky), Lieberman saw how much of an impact heel-striking causes. When you heel-strike, your foot comes to a dead stop, causing your foot and leg to have to absorb all of that kinetic energy (a force which is 2-3 times your body weight). When you land on your forefoot, however, some of that kinetic energy is converted into rotational energy as your foot goes from toe to heel. This is obviously much less jolting. The researchers hypothesize that heel-striking is the cause of a lot of running-related repetitive stress injuries, and by avoiding heel-striking, more runners could see less of these types of injuries.
If you want to try running barefoot (and I recommend), Lieberman cautions that you shouldn’t just jump into it (especially if it is February in Minnesota), but rather start slowly. Running barefoot uses different muscles and it takes a little while for your feet to get used to it if you’ve been a shod runner your whole life. Who knows, your feet may be your new favorite shoes.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I saw this study recently, and I've been slightly obsessed with it. (This and Marmite. Go figure.) I'm super intrigued. Not so much that I won't wait until spring to give it a shot, but still.

Also, Bryan passed this page on to me. It's a website on the research, put together by the Harvard team that actually did it. It's pretty interesting. They point out that their study doesn't actually claim that barefoot-style running decreases stress injuries (compared to shod-style running), because that wasn't part of the research, but that that's reasonable to infer, and would be worth testing.

I also just noticed that the study was co-funded by Vibram, one of the few manufacturers of barefoot-style running shoes. I don't suppose that makes the research any less valid, but it's the sort of thing people like to get worked up about, so I thought I'd point it out.

posted on Mon, 02/22/2010 - 10:57am
edco's picture
edco says:

This winter I picked up a pair of Vibram's five fingers (brand mentioned by JGordon - shoes designed for the "barefoot" running - with a thin layer of rubber for protection) and they have come in handy for running while traveling. They take up much less space in the suitcase.
The warnings about starting out slow are to be heeded. Even after walking around the house in them for days on end I thought that I would be ready. Running is a different story. By landing on the ball of your foot, the calf muscle is engaged almost the whole time. Needless to say, I ended up limping for days after my first full out try at running. I have since learned to take it easy until spring when I can use them more than just a few days a month.

posted on Mon, 02/22/2010 - 7:33pm
Sydney's picture
Sydney says:

Running without shoes is barely one can think of nowadays because of the habit of wearing shoes and slippers. Our body is like our habit, it gets into it whatever it is done to it. Like we used to walk run without shoes and slippers in early times and we were able to do it. But we will get into it again if we are given the same circumstances. Today, there are so many choices in wearing shoes, addidas shoes, nike shoes, Roxy Shoes , meaning we are used to it. There are many people in many places who are still walking and running without shoes, slippers. I think it's just a habit nothing more. I truly agree that best running shoes are our feet.

posted on Tue, 05/04/2010 - 1:54pm
bryan kennedy's picture

I'd like to hear from some folks with seriously flat feet who've tried this and had it work. Most of the studies I've seen on this all talk about our awesomely springy high arches. What about us poor evolutionary cast offs with plank flat feet?

One of these days I'll give barefoot running a try, but considering walking around the house for a couple hours without shoes on can hurt, I'm guessing a jog is going to be problematic as well.

posted on Wed, 06/02/2010 - 10:34am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I say that running isa good sorce of exercise and i hope that all of us can in like it as much as i do. I went to this larning placeup north and i had to walk 6 miles a day it was exusting but FUN. i did not like to run after that but i can do it all of the time. so i hope u love running know

posted on Mon, 06/07/2010 - 12:06pm

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