Don’t you love it when science catches up to intuition? I logged countless miles in training as a competitive runner in high school. Much of it was done plodding in heel-to-toe fashion while wearing thick-soled spongy—and very expensive—running shoes. I was led to believe that the feats of Nike engineering on my feet were not a luxury but a necessity that prevented injury and aided performance. Still, convinced as I was by conventional wisdom and corporate hype, I constantly dreamed of running barefoot. Something inside nagged me to shuck the shoes and go caveman. While the world around me preached technology, I kept hearing the voice of the wild. Whenever I did run barefoot, it felt so good, so right, and so natural. I felt faster and more relaxed. Occasionally I would sneak onto golf courses for a quick interval workout before groundskeepers chased me away. (To this day I resent golfers because they get to saunter around on what I see as the world’s greatest running surfaces tragically squandered.) Those sessions were so beautiful that I still remember them today. All these years later the pure joy of striding barefoot on golf courses was so special that it is still fresh in my mind.
It turns out that I probably should have followed my heart. New research suggests that it may be safer for runners to stick to their evolutionary roots and go barefoot. Fancy running shoes, it seems, may cause injuries rather than prevent them. The problem, according to a recent article in the science journal, “Nature”, is that our running form changes when we wear running shoes with thick soles. They cause runners to strike first with the heel and then roll forward. Doing this, writes Harvard anthropologist Daniel Lieberman, is like having someone hit your heel repeatedly with a force of up to three times your bodyweight. And the force of impact doesn’t stop at the heel. It continues up the body to stress the knees, hip and back as well. A barefoot runner, however, naturally strikes the ground with the forefoot. This creates a natural shock-absorbing effect with the calf muscles that eliminates most of the extreme stress.
Before the “Nature” article came out, I had already read Christopher McDougall’s excellent book, “Born to run”. It makes a compelling case for doing it the old fashioned way. As McDougall argues, we are in fact running animals. Our feet and bodies are best suited to barefoot running because that’s how we have done it for 99.99 percent of our existence. Cushioned running shoes with thick heels did not arrive until the 1970s and they were not crafted with our ancestral running style in mind. Just consider that in the decades since running shoes have been popular, millions of runners have suffered stress fractures, shin splints, arch pain, and so on. The shoes keep getting “better” but the injury rate for runners never improves. When it comes to running, it seems we ignore prehistoric people at our own peril. They ran and walked tremendous distances without ever once lacing up a $200 pair of New Balance running shoes. Still, almost everyone believes we need high-tech shoes to run in. During a visit to Africa’s Great Rift Valley, I had the pleasure of watching elite Kenyan athletes train. I noticed that all of them wore shoes. Running is a natural activity so perhaps it does make sense to do it as naturally as possible. Some anthropologists even believe that early humans utilized “persistence hunts” to obtain food. This form of hunting requires one or groups of people to literally chase an animal until it collapses from exhaustion. It may take all day, even multiple days. Given a long enough distance, a fit human is capable of outrunning many very fast animals. We may not do well in short sprints against gazelles and deer, for example, but stretch out the contest over 30 or 50 miles and we are formidable members of the animal kingdom—or were until we invented cars, fast food and television.
More research is needed before we can be sure about the dangers of expensive running shoes and the benefits of running barefoot. However, we may be at the beginning of a major revolution in one of the world’s most popular fitness activities. Don’t expect the shoe companies to just lie down and surrender. That multi-billion dollar industry will figure out how to keep putting its products on your feet, one way or another. The geniuses at Nike, for example, are already selling shoes that are marketed as the next best thing to shoeless running. Don’t laugh; I have a pair and they do feel pretty good. But, sadly, they can’t quite match the transcendent joy felt by a pair of bare feet flying across a golf course.
Guy is a lifelong runner and the author of “Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know About Our Biological Diversity”. Contact him at [email protected]