Should We Run Barefoot?

A few weeks ago while on a flight to some forgotten city from another forgotten city, the gentleman next to me started up a conversation. As I recall, it was one of those deals where I wanted to sleep as it was an early morning flight. Unfortunately, the conversant was not of high enough social IQ to discern this so he pressed on.

“What do you do?” he asked. Still trying to scratch the sand out of my eyes, I replied, “I’m a podiatric surgeon.”

“Really, Doc, doesn’t it bother you to have to operate on them kids all the time?” I should have just said “no” and left it at that, but felt compelled to educate. I went on to explain that podiatric was not “pediatric” and that I operated on feet and ankles — sometimes on children.

Unfortunately, now feeling he had carte blanche to any tidbit of information I might be able to give him, he said he would leave me alone (he noticed my head was bobbing around more than a bobble head doll glued to the dashboard of a dilapidated PT Cruiser with a flat tire). But he just had one question: “What about humans running barefoot? Is that good for ya?”

The burly Texan looked down at his feet and nodded toward them while wiggling his tootsies in some tight sharkskin cowboy boots.

“It seemed to work well for us for most of the last 3.5 million years,” I said without thinking much about it. Then again, I’m not a sports medicine guy. I then started thinking that prior to the development of Nike shoes, what did most people run in? They ran in their skin up to the last couple of thousand years or something like a leather skin moccasin prior to that. Really, though, folks ran and walked without shoes for a hell of a long time before even the name Gucci came along. Now I was intellectually irritated but still curious about what the facts really are.

An Anthropological Perspective On Barefoot Running

I was at Midwestern University the other day and was lecturing in a pathomechanics class when the course director, professor David Jenkins, DPM, came into the room. He wrote a nice article on barefoot running a few months back so I implored him with my question: “What about barefoot running?” I had read his article but remembered little so I was anxious to hear him recap it and give the real “scoop.”1

“Let me run upstairs,” he said. This great article — not referring to his own (which is good by the way) -- had just come out and he wanted to get me a copy. He said, “It’s written by the guru, Daniel Lieberman, PhD.”2

The title of the article is “What We Can Learn About Running from Barefoot Running: An Evolutionary Medical Perspective.” So I took some time to read it and it is an excellent article, which I think will give me some real ammunition at the next cocktail party when the subject comes up.

Dr. Lieberman is an anthropologist who quickly points out that humans had been running on uneven and harsh surfaces for millions of years prior to about 45,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic period, when soft protection for the foot started to arrive.2 Now think about this. We are having a debate about what is better — barefoot running or running with shoes — when the latter has been in existence only a fraction of the time that we have been on the planet.

Then he brings up the salient point that this is really an example of evolution and natural selection. Cool stuff. I only think about how birds’ feathers change colors over short periods of time, like 10,000 years, when the topic of Darwin or evolution comes up. Now we are talking about the change in human DNA and the change in environmental conditions from the Stone Age to the Agricultural Age. This is a very short period of time for evolutionists in which our Paleolithic bods could not keep up with the change from hunter-gatherers to farmers and sophisticated dandies, relatively speaking.

Dr. Lieberman talks about the fact that: “… because agriculture was invented less than 10,000 years ago and we ceased being hunter-gatherers, humans have changed their diet and physical environments so radically and so rapidly that natural selection has had little time to react.” Now comes along Phil Knight and the Nike revolution, just some 30 to 40 years ago.

Here are some key points that Dr. Lieberman makes in his article.2

1. Shod runners run differently than barefoot runners (different forms, different peak pressures, etc.). There are huge differences in musculoskeletal function.
2. Experienced barefoot runners hit the ground with the forefoot or midfoot, and shod runners hit with a high peak force of heel strike.
3. Barefoot runners have a shorter stride length with more steps per minute in comparison to shod runners.
4. The barefoot folks get calluses more than the shod runners obviously, but the callus is more protective and does not really provide any substantive cushioning for the runner.
5. Barefoot runners have more developed intrinsic muscles. Think of it as weightlifting for the interossei.
6. The big question: “Which has more injury?” It seems the jury is still out on that.

Final Notes

In summary, you might find this very interesting both from a sports medicine perspective and anthropologic view. Dr. Jenkins summed it up by telling me that you have to have the right type of foot and integrate slowly if you are thinking about kicking off those iridescent, way cool running shoes.

References

1. Jenkins DW, Cauthon DJ. Barefoot running claims and controversies: a review of the literature. J Am Podiatr Med Assoc. 2011; 101(3):231-246.
2. Lieberman DE. What we can learn about running from barefoot running: an evolutionary medical perspective. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2012; 40(2):63-72.



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