Is It Better To Be Barefoot?by Christopher McDougall
Every year, countless Americans stop exercising--or don't even start--due to leg and foot pain. In response, athletic-shoe companies have poured millions of dollars into new cushioning, arch support, and shock absorbers. But despite this technological firepower, as many as six out of 10 runners are estimated to get injured every year.
If shoes are not the solution, could they possibly be the problem? Evolution might hold the answer. Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and Dennis Bramble, a biology professor at the University of Utah, argue that for the last 2 million years, humans have engaged in long-distance running. And, for almost all of that time, humans have been running barefoot, coming down on the forefeet with toes spread and bending the ankles and knees to absorb the shock. Lieberman believes that today's sneakers--with their fat heels, squishy soles, and stiff arch supports--may be causing us instead to land hard on our bony heels with our legs straight.
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Irene Davis, a professor of physical therapy and head of the Running Research Laboratory at the University of Delaware, is a barefoot skeptic turned convert. Like most sports-medicine practitioners, she has prescribed custom-made orthotic inserts for patients with heel pain. When one of her chronically hurt patients wanted to go for a jog with a pair of barefoot-style running shoes, she told him he was nuts. Despite the warning, he went ahead--and came back injury-free. Davis herself tried running barefoot and now is logging up to four miles a day on asphalt. Doesn't it hurt?
"No," she says. "The harder the surface, the more lightly you land and the more easily you spring back." The human body instinctively modifies itself to different kinds of terrain-- just think back to when you were a kid and how it felt to run barefoot on the grass, sand, or pavement.
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Our legs are thickly woven with rubbery, elastic tendons that absorb shock and also use it as free energy, like a rubber ball ricocheting off pavement. "If you encase the foot in thick shoes, you not only lose ground awareness, you limit natural elasticity," says Robert Schleip of the Fascia Research Center at Germany's University of Ulm. According to a study published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness in March, barefoot runners experienced significantly less impact than runners in shoes.
"We've gone too far with cushioning and arbitrary shoe designs," says Stephen Pribut, a leading sports podiatrist in Washington, D.C. Still, Pribut is not ready to tell all of his patients to go barefoot, though he agrees that no study has ever shown that barefoot runners are hurt more often than runners in shoes. In a 2009 review article for the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers searched 30 years of studies and were unable to find one demonstrating that running shoes make people less prone to injury.
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Some of the major athletic-equipment companies already produce minimalist sneakers with little cushioning. "If this [barefoot running] is injury-preventive because it's natural motion, we're all for that," says Jim Weber, president and CEO of Brooks Sports, a running-shoe manufacturer. Brooks has been working on a barefoot-type shoe for four years. "But one reason we didn't rush it out is that retailers won't carry it," he adds.
Barefoot-running coach "Barefoot Ted" McDonald believes that the easiest way to introduce the practice to people is to have them try it out themselves. He has taught running classes on the Google and Microsoft campuses, and a few months ago in Palo Alto, Calif., I watched as he led 30 people of all ages and fitness levels in a jog down a city street. The trick to running barefoot, McDonald says, is remembering three points: Be light, be quick, and be upright. You want to land gently and then instantly lift that foot back up so it feels like you're in the air more than you're on the ground. At the same time, keep your back straight with your feet right under your hips. Gradually incorporate barefoot running into your workouts, giving your ankles time to get stronger.
It takes McDonald's students trial and error--and around 30 minutes--to get used to the sensation of running barefoot.
"It's amazing," one woman reports. "I feel like I'm floating."
Christopher McDougall is the author of the best-selling book "Born to Run."