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January 28, 2010

Who needs shoes? Barefoot running is good for you

And you thought barefoot running was just some wacky new fitness craze. Well, new research from Harvard scientists suggests that the bare human foot is better able to withstand the impact of running than fancy cushioned sneakers can.

The study, appearing in the new issue of the journal Nature, describes the mechanics of running barefoot, or with minimal footwear, and how it can actually help prevent injury.

Sounds nutty, right? Not to mention painful. But researchers found that in shoes, runners strike the ground heel-first, generating a far more powerful -- and potentially painful -- blow than do barefoot runners, who hit the ground toward the middle or front of the foot. Simply put, running barefoot allows the foot to strike in a way that triggers less of an impact, researchers said.

After all, for millions of years humans have been running barefoot or with no-frills footwear like sandals or moccasins, the study explains. Running shoes weren't invented until the 1970s. Somehow, humankind managed quite well all that time without them. 

Not everyone is convinced that running sans shoes translates into fewer injuries.

"I think the contentious part will be whether wearing shoes and changing the pattern of running...actually has an impact on foot injury," Brian Richmond, an anthropologist at George Washington University told the Boston Globe. "It's an idea worth examining, because basically what they found is how people would run in a more natural setting."

Harvard scientists have been studying the differences for years and you can find some of their extensive findings at the team's barefoot running site. They even offer tips on how to run properly without shoes. Tip: start working on those calluses now.

As I recall, Picture of Health has quite a few readers who are big fans of shoeless running. When we wrote about the issue in the fall, many of you said you were inspired to ditch your Nikes after reading reading Born to Run, the New York Times bestseller by Christopher McDougall about the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico who run mega-long distances without a problem.

So, are you still at it? Any thoughts about the new research?

Baltimore Sun photo

Posted by Kelly Brewington at 7:00 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Diet and exercise


I'm a freshman in highschool and i run track. Whenever I forget my shoes I ALWAYS run barefoot. It's exhilarating and it feels healthier. Tennis shoes bind your feet and make it harder to run on your toes.

Can't wait to see Harvard scientists do their big expose on the potential hazards of coats and hats in cold weather.

Every time I read one of these stories on the superiority of barefoot running, I think:
What if you wear shoes but you're already a midfoot striker? And what about those of us who have low arches and need support to correct the biomechanical imbalances?

Until I see these factors addressed, I'm keeping my shoes. It is fun to run barefoot on the beach or across grass every once in a blue moon though.

1. Running shoes were available for a long time before the 1970s. New Balance was very active in the early 60s, and they were a latecomer.
2. Dale Story, Oregon State Univ, won the 1961 NCAA cross country championship, running barefoot, and of course, the 1960 Olympic Marathon was won by barefooted Ethiopian Abebe Bekila, in world record time.

What this fails to address is what the Harvard researchers themselves state:
We emphasize though, that no study has shown that heel striking contributes more to injury than forefoot striking

There is no evidence that injuries are related to heel striking -- so what's the advantage of barefoot running? It seems to be all hype and no substance.

just remember, millions of years of evolution gave you the foot you have now. you were born to move, and you were born to NOT strike your heel on the ground... that's why it hurts when you do it.

if you can't run barefoot, check out they are the next best thing.

The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.
- Leonardo da Vinci

Jones - I don't run barefoot but I did switch to a shoe with minimal support. Speaking to a few other people who switched too, running with less support for us at least, helped to change our stride. You feel the impact on your feet and change automatically - whereas in a shoe you're cushioned and don't feel it.

And yes, you start getting calluses on your foot you didn't use to have.

I think the high school track runner's comment above said it best...namely that running barefoot is exhilarating. For me not only is it exciting to run barefoot (or actually I cheat and use barefoot shoes) but it is a very liberating feeling.

But besides the feeling you definitely feel your feet getting stronger. Besides sore calves I haven't been getting the same kinds of foot pain that I used to when I run.

I'm happy to see the research supporting what I had already started to conclude...that barefoot is good for you.

Oh yeah, also wanted to mention a good article that was posted that had a video interview with Dr. Lieberman (guy who did the study)...definitely worth checking out.

I’m an orthopedic surgeon and runner. I have been advocating barefoot or minimalist-shoe running for years. I wrote an article on the topic that has garnered quite a bit of attention. See:

Cheers and happy running.

Running barefoot has allowed me to run again. I used to be very active in running in high school. Then freshman year of college my knees started hurting badly. Two years out of college I started barefoot running and haven't had the pain yet. While mine is just one experience, I am sure that others will have the same. As for arch support: I "had" low arches. Exercising my feet by running barefoot has dramatically increased my arch prevalence.

Yes, if you go barefoot on a beautiful grass, or a somewhat smoother surface. But try to go on a road paved with stones as way and then see how you feel. You like beating yourself in the foot pegs. I'm not saying it is not healthy but it's pretty hard to do so.

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About Picture of Health
Meredith CohnMeredith Cohn has been a reporter since 1991, covering everything from politics and airlines to the environment and medicine. A runner since junior high and a particular eater for almost as long, she tries to keep up on health and fitness trends. Her aim is to bring you the latest news and information from the local and national medical and wellness communities.

Andrea K. WalkerAndrea K. Walker knows it’s weird to some people, but she has a fascination with fitness, diseases, medicine and other health-related topics. She subscribes to a variety of health and fitness magazines and becomes easily engrossed in the latest research in health and science. An exercise fanatic, she’s probably tried just about every fitness activity there is. Her favorites are running, yoga and kickboxing. So it is probably fitting that she has been assigned to cover the business of healthcare and to become a regular contributor to this blog. Andrea has been at The Sun for nearly 10 years, covering manufacturing, retail , airlines and small and minority business. She looks forward to telling readers about the latest health news.

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