Running barefoot is actually the best thing for your feet and knees, and wearing conventional running shoes is bad. That’s the news according to a report published at the end of January by Harvard biologist Daniel Lieberman.
Of course, I knew all that already because of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, which I read last summer. I wrote a brief review on my personal books blog, but here’s the gist of it:
The big conclusion, of course (and I’m not really spoiling the book to tell you this), is that we’re doing it wrong. The reason we have so much heart disease and diabetes and obesity is that we’re built to run but we don’t. And the reason runners have so many injuries and so few people enjoy doing it is because we’re wearing clunky shoes that keep us from feeling the ground, forcing us to strike the ground with our heels extra hard. Plus there’s the attitude: the people McDougall writes about all share a love for running that call to mind the old line from “Chariots of Fire”: “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” It’s about people who run because they love it, not because they have to.
Now, what that doesn’t tell you is that the book is not just a dry write-up of scientific studies that come to this conclusion. (For that, you can use Google Scholar to look up Daniel Lieberman’s papers.) McDougall’s story delves into the sport of ultramarathoning, and any sport that involves running a hundred miles in the desert is bound to turn up some very interesting characters. He also tracks down the Tarahumara, a tribe living in Mexico’s Copper Canyon who are billed as the world’s fastest runners. He writes about Nike and the evolution of the modern running shoe which literally changed the way we run, and he even interviews Lieberman about his studies on endurance running.
Lieberman’s study explains that because of the way we run when we wear shoes (versus going barefoot), we actually strike the ground harder and create more impact on our bodies–even taking into account the extra cushioning. That little bit of trivia about how every step you take when you run is like putting three times your weight on your legs? That’s if you wear running shoes. Turns out, if you take off the shoes and run barefoot, you land a lot more lightly. Now, Lieberman’s study doesn’t go so far as to conclude that this is the reason runners have so many knee and foot injuries (that would require more study), but McDougall’s book makes a pretty convincing argument.
I wrote last summer about my journey from couch to 5K to half-marathon. What I didn’t really explain there was that running doesn’t excite me. I don’t get some sort of high from it and frankly it’s not my favorite activity–I simply did it because my wife wanted to try running and I figured it was as good an exercise as any; the fact that I turned out to be okay at it was a bonus. But reading Born to Run actually made me want to run. No, I don’t plan to go run 100 miles in the desert, but I have this crazy hope that I’ll actually enjoy running if I quit thinking of it as exercise and more as something that we’re built to do.
Join the Barefoot Revolution
Of course, none of this talk about going barefoot is really new: I remember reading about athletes training barefoot years ago, and then Nike capitalized on that with their Nike Free line. But Born to Run has been pretty successful at bringing it more into the mainstream, and with the recent study I felt it was worth repeating. TreeHugger also had a recent story about barefoot running, citing the same study.
McDougall has had a lot of media appearances preaching the gospel of barefoot running, which he argues is perfectly easy to do in places where there are nice smooth sidewalks free of debris. For the rest of us, having some sort of protection in place is pretty important. My wife got herself a pair of Vibram FiveFingers and started training in them, and loves them despite (or maybe because of) the weird looks she gets when she’s wearing them. I’d actually been wearing my old Nike Frees, which I’d gotten long before I started running, simply because I like being barefoot and I’d heard they were supposed to approximate that. And I’ve been considering Terra Plana’s Vivo Barefoot line of shoes, which have a very thin (but strong) sole. They cost a bit more than the other options, but they have the advantage of looking like actual shoes, and they have options that are not strictly for running.
The important thing to note, however, is that if you’ve been wearing running shoes for a while, it’s not a great idea to switch directly to barefoot (or almost-barefoot) cold turkey. You want to slowly ramp up time barefoot running until your running style shifts and your feet build up some strength. But once you do, you may find that a lot of your old injuries don’t come back; my wife had a lot of knee pain building up to the half-marathon last year, but since she quit wearing her running shoes her knees have been just fine. (We’ll see how that holds up next time we run a half-marathon.)
The least you can do, however, is stop wearing shoes indoors. It’s not specifically related, but another recent study showed that wearing shoes indoors brings pesticides and other toxins into the home. One report I’d read said that removing your shoes at the door had a greater impact on the levels of pesticides in kids’ bloodstreams than giving them organic fruit. There’s even a Shoes Off at the Door, Please blog, listing all the reasons you should keep shoes out of your house.
I personally prefer a shoe-free house (it’s how my Chinese parents raised me) but now I know there’s a host of other good reasons as well. Of course, combining shoes off indoors with running literally barefoot may be working to cross-purposes, if you track in toxins on your bare feet. I suppose somebody will do a study on that next. For now, my plan is to run in thin-soled, flexible shoes–which I’ll leave at the door.
If you still need convincing or if you just want to read a really great book about crazy runners, check out Born to Run. Even if you don’t take up running yourself, I guarantee it’ll change the way you think about your feet!