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Is barefoot better?

Jan 30th, 2013
Staff Writer

Nike Free running shoes || Photo Credit: Wikimedia CommonsIn the quest for fewer injuries and smoother form, many runners have in recent years turned to minimalist shoe technology like Vibrams or Nike Frees. Some even opt for no shoes at all, preferring instead to run barefoot like our earliest ancestors.

This urge to avoid the mainstream, thickly padded, heel-heavy running shoe is born of the belief that striking the ground with one’s fore foot rather than one’s heel is more anthropologically correct, mimicking the gait of our ancestors and leading to fewer use injuries.

But according to a new study by a group of evolutionary anthropologists published in this month’s issue of PlosOne Journal, heel striking may not be as bad as we thought.

The researchers selected 38 adults from the Daasanach tribe of northern Kenya, a tribe who traditionally wear nothing on their feet. The participants were asked to run at whatever speed they chose along a pad that sensed the force of their foot impact. The researchers’ findings showed that as the speed of the runners increased, so did the likelihood of striking with the front of the foot; at a moderate endurance speed, however, the majority of runners used a rear foot strike.

“These results indicate that not all habitually barefoot people prefer running with a forefoot strike,” the study concluded. “Other factors such as running speed, training level, substrate mechanical properties, running distance, and running frequency, influence the selection of foot strike patterns.”

The development of shoes specific to running is relatively brand new to humans. With running injuries continuing to occur even after these protective shoes were introduced, the question becomes one of biomechanics rather than sports gear. But while this study definitively challenges the effectiveness of the barefoot running craze, the evidence for either side still fails to strike a definitive pattern.