Davis runners Efrem Rensi, left, and Noah Elhardt, who were featured in a 2007 Bee story on barefoot running. Bee Photo/Lezlie Sterling
There has been considerable attention paid to the new study published in the journal Nautre by Harvard's Daniel Lieberman fanning the growing shoes-versus-barefoot running debate.
Lieberman's research both in the U.S. and Kenya show that habitual unshod runners create less impact on footstrike, mostly because they are forefoot or midfoot strikers, as compared to shoe-wearers who are mostly heel strikers.
But, as my favorite exercise science researchers on The Science of Sport blog point out, the study did not show that running barefoot reduces the chance of injury. In fact, the opposite might be true. The jury is still out. Here's an interesting excerpt from Drs. Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas.
What the Nature study hasn't measured is the long term (or even the short term) effects of the change on loading rates on different joints. If you wish to guarantee yourself an injury, then go out for a 2km run barefoot on a hard surface, and you will be asking your calf muscles and Achilles tendons to do work that for perhaps 30 years, they haven't had to do.
And I will illustrate this with our own insight into footstrike and injury. When the Pose research was done in Cape Town, athletes basically had their footstrike patterns changed through 2 weeks of training in the new method. The biomechanical analysis found lower impact forces (sound familiar? Same as the Nature paper), and even less work on the knee joint. This was hailed as a breakthrough against running injuries, because lower impact plus lower work on the knee meant less chance of injury. Jump ahead 2 weeks, and 19 out of 20 runners had broken down injured. Why? Because their calves and ankles were murdered by the sudden change. And the science showed this - the work on the ANKLE was significantly INCREASED during the forefoot landing.
The point is, changing how you run, whether by technique training or a change in shoes (like running barefoot) will load muscles that may be very weak, and joints and tendons well beyond their means. If however, you are a habitually barefoot runner, then you can do this, because your body has been prepared for it. For everyone else, I think we may be underestimating the time it will take to transition successfully to barefoot running (or forefoot striking, if you're going to force that change 'unnaturally').
So I'm not eschewing the shoe just yet. How about you?