Visit any sporting goods store today, and you’ll see a wall display full of running shoes for all types of runner, from sprinters to marathoners and everything in between. Before the 1970s, however, specialized running shoes weren’t readily available, and most runners ran with minimally supportive shoes or without any shoes at all.
It is easy to imagine how people could run shoeless along unpaved roads a hundred years ago, but on U.S. streets today? That’s a bit harder to picture. Still, barefoot running has grown in popularity over the past two decades. The question remains why a runner would want to strike hard ground with the tender sole of his or her foot instead of a cushioned running shoe. The answer may be that barefoot runners have fewer impact-related injuries.
Researchers set out to determine if there was a difference in the way barefoot runners’ feet strike the ground and if this decreased the force the runners felt in their joints. The research team studied three groups: U.S. runners who always ran in shoes, Kenyan runners who grew up running barefoot but now run in shoes and U.S. runners who started their running careers wearing shoes but now run barefoot. They found that athletes who have always worn shoes tended to land heel first and then roll up onto their toes, unlike barefoot runners who tended to land toe first. The Kenyan runners—who came late to the practice of running with shoes—also landed toe first, suggesting that early barefoot running can influence foot landing even when the runner starts wearing shoes.
Running is a high-impact activity that generates large forces when the feet strike the ground. This impact often causes injuries, particularly in high-mileage athletes, who are prone to repetitive motion injuries. When the researchers examined the force of foot-strikes, barefoot runners struck the ground with much lower forces than those wearing shoes. The lower strike force seems to be directly linked to landing toe first instead of heel first. Barefoot runners also lower their center of gravity more than runners who wear shoes. This decreases the stress on their legs during a foot strike and allows for more “give” in their stride. The lower impact of barefoot running is interesting because running shoes are designed to cushion the foot and protect against forceful impact.
Jessica C. Taylor, PhD, is a physiologist, medical educator and exercise enthusiast. She was previously the executive director of the Mississippi Osteopathic Medical Association and will be joining the APS staff as the Senior Manager of Higher Education Programs this summer.