Running barefoot puts less strain on your joints than running shoes.
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- Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, a review
A study published last month in PM&R, the Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, has confirmed what the growing barefoot running movement has known for years: running shoes are bad for you. The study found that running shoes increased knee and hip torque when compared to running with no shoes at all. "[T]here is no clinical evidence to support that [cushioned running shoe] design is optimal to promote the long-term health of runner," the study explains.
The study, which was conducted on sixty-eight young adult runners with no leg injuries, found that running shoes increased knee torque 36-38%, and hip internal rotation torque 54% compared to barefoot running. The findings run contrary to the intended effect of running shoes, which are designed to decrease injury risk by increasing stability. "[T]he rate of running-related injury in distance runners has not changed dramatically despite advances in footwear design technologies," the study points out. In fact, the researchers noted that running shoes place more strain on the joints of the lower extremities than even high heels, which only increase knee torque 20-26%. Although running shoes are not as detrimental as high-heeled shoes to the integrity of the calf muscle, the sheer volume of steps taken in running shoes compared to high-heels underscores the importance of the new findings for preventing chronic injuries and osteoarthritis.
The body of evidence against running shoes has been growing in the past decade, leading to the development of training shoes that mimic bare feet. Walk into a running store today and you're likely to see Vibram Five Fingers--water slippers designed for boating--on display next to the Asics and Sauconies. As Christopher McDougall explains in his book Born to Run, when we run on cushioned soles, our feet instinctively slam into the ground harder in order to find more stability on the uncertain cushioned surface. Thus, cloud-like running shoes actually increase the impact forces through our legs, promoting overuse injuries.
Proponents of the barefoot running movement claim that once a runner removes his shoes, his feet naturally seek the most efficient running gait. Common problems such as over-striding, heel-striking, and excessive supination are naturally erased as the body seeks to adjust its position to absorb impact shock without the help of pillowy running shoes. Heel-striking (which slows you down and increases your risk of all kinds of injuries) is not possible when running barefoot because, well, it hurts too much. The researchers at PM&R support this theory. "It is also conceivable that the study subjects adopted a different contact style to minimize a potential increase in impact loading associated with barefoot running," they postulate.
The researchers add that, "Medial posting and arch supports on the other hand may inhibit the natural, potentially beneficial compliance of the foot in transitioning from a supinated to a pronated position near midstance back to a supinated position near toe-off." Translation: the arch supports in your shoes prevent your foot from rolling naturally through your stride, possibly increasing your risk of injury.
Throwing out your running shoes altogether is a radical step, and may actually cause overuse injuries because of the drastic change it will cause in your running gait. You can start out by looking for running shoes that offer as few corrective measures as possible, such as Innov8 trail shoes. If you want to try barefoot running, experts suggest starting slowly, incorporating a few barefoot drills on a soft, sandy, or grassy surface a few times a week. "Try starting out with a quarter mile [barefoot] at a time (per workout) after you are well-warmed up," suggests Brian Cavanaugh, USATF and USAT-certified coach. "Then run more in shoes afterward and feel the changes in your form." If you use "barefoot" shoes like Vibram Five Fingers or Nike Frees, then phase them in slowly. Begin by only wearing them for your shortest runs and slowly build up the distance as your legs get used to your new form.