Latest Barefoot Research Reveals Surprising Information
Yes, barefoot running is quickly becoming a sweeping phenomenon and many running enthusiasts are now convinced that barefoot is the only way to go when it comes to running.
Recent studies, however, show that barefoot benefits runners originally thought they were getting may not all be the same.
Researchers at the University of Colorado found optimal performance when running with lightweight, cushioned shoes, and more efficient for conserving a runner’s energy – but the matter is still up for debate.
Is it Easier to Run With Shoes?
The study involved 12 runners with “extensive” barefoot running experience. They ran on treadmills on different occasions, wearing either lightweight, cushioned running shoes, or ultra thin sport socks. Small weights were taped to the top of the runners’ feet to simulate the weight of a typical running shoe.
The results showed that barefoot running used nearly 4 percent more energy with every step, which suggests that it may be physically easier on your feet to wear lightweight shoes rather than be completely barefoot.
When running barefoot, the leg muscles suffered the entire force of impact with the ground forcing the leg muscles to work harder than they would when compared with wearing some cushion underneath the soles of their feet.
So, physiologically speaking, it may be more efficient to wear lightweight shoes (about 150 grams). Whether this means that you are able to run farther or faster than the average runner is still not 100% clear.
It should be noted that the shoe used in the study was the Nike Mayfly, which is designed as an ultra lightweight model and is not the type of running shoe most casual runners wear. Additionally, the study has been cause for much heated debate over several potential issues …
Potential Flaws In University Study
Humans have been running or walking barefoot for ages; running shoes were only invented in the 1970’s. Barefoot running advocates suggest that barefoot running saves precious energy while the added running shoe weight increases your energy expenditure.
The latest research, however, suggests that modern running shoes, with extra cushion and elevated heels, may actually encourage runners to strike the ground with their heel first generating a greater impact with the ground which also leads to an increased chance of injury.
This study did not evaluate injury rates, but past research by Michael Warburton, a physical therapist in Australia, revealed that:
Chronic leg injuries to the bone and connective tissue are hardly seen in developing countries, where most people usually travel barefoot.
In Haiti, where there is a mix of people walking barefoot and people wearing shoes, leg and foot injury rates are substantially higher among the shoe-wearing population.
The likelihood of ankle sprains, one of the most common sports injuries, is higher with footwear as the shoe either decreases your awareness of your foot position or increases the twisting torque on your ankle when you trip over something or stumble.
Planter fasciitis, an inflammation of the ligament along the sole of your foot, and one of the most common chronic injuries in runners, is almost never observed in barefoot populations.
Several other points brought up in this university study were worthy of further consideration:
1.) The runners were said to be “experienced” in barefoot running, but this only meant they had to have run barefoot or used “minimalist running footwear” for at least three months in the last year.
Common sense dictates that the more experience a runner has, the more efficient and better form they will cultivate, and three months is most likely not enough time to achieve the proper barefoot running technique.
2.) The study used a treadmill, which is different than real-world conditions
3.) The barefoot runners had weights taped to the tops of their feet, which is different from wearing a running shoe that distributes weight more evenly below your foot. This alone could have made their running more difficult.
4.) The barefoot runners also wore socks, which could also alter the true barefoot running experience.
An Often-Overlooked Benefit of Barefoot Running: Grounding
Whenever you go barefoot, you get the benefits of grounding with the Earth (an activity that is also known as “earthing”). The Earth is negatively charged, so when your bare feet are firmly planted on the ground, you’re connecting your body to a negatively charged supply of energy.
Since the Earth has a greater negative charge than your body, you end up absorbing electrons from it through the soles of your feet. According to the latest research, the grounding effect is very possibly one of the most potent antioxidants we know of and may have an anti-inflammatory effect on your body.
As written in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine:
“It is well established, though not widely known, that the surface of the earth possesses a limitless and continuously renewed supply of free or mobile electrons as a consequence of a global atmospheric electron circuit. Wearing shoes with insulating soles and/or sleeping in beds that are isolated from the electrical ground plane of the earth have disconnected most people from the earth’s electrical rhythms and free electrons.
… A previous study demonstrated that connecting the human body to the earth during sleep (earthing) normalizes the daily cortisol rhythm and improves sleep. A variety of other benefits were reported, including reductions in pain and inflammation. Subsequent studies have confirmed these earlier findings and documented virtually immediate physiologic and clinical effects of grounding or earthing the body.”
Since so few people ever walk (or run) barefoot anymore to experience the benefits of grounding, it is very plausible that some of the people who have converted to barefoot running are experiencing benefits not only from the lack of shoes, but also from the increased connection to the Earth.
Barefoot or Shoes: What is Our Best Choice?
It’s likely that there are benefits and risks to both shoe-wearing and going barefoot, and you can tailor your footwear decisions accordingly.
For instance, if you’ll be running on asphalt or rocky terrain, or in very hot or cold temperatures, a lightweight shoe makes sense to protect your feet from injury (seasoned barefoot runners note that the skin on the bottom of your feet naturally thickens the more time you spend without shoes, offering natural, built-in protection, but this will take time to build up).
For times when you’ll be on softer surfaces, such as sand, grass or a dirt path, try going barefoot and see how it feels.
Do use caution when first starting out, as many new barefoot runners continue to land heavily on their heels — and the result can be injury.
When running barefoot, you need to aim for a forefoot or mid-foot strike with the ground, which will take some adjustment to get used to.
If you decide to give barefoot running a try make sure you do it slowly, progressing gradually to more and more time spent without shoes. Listen to your body and go from there …