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Lieberman says barefoot running is better than shoes

January 27th, 2010

This is going to make a big splash. A paper by Dan Lieberman — the Harvard anthropologist who made headlines with the argument that long-distance running was a key evolutionary driver in humans — in tomorrow’s issue of Nature argues that barefoot running is better than modern running shoes. Here’s how the Associated Press is reporting this story:

Harvard biologist and runner Daniel Lieberman had a simple question: “How did people run without shoes?”

The answer he got is: Much better.

At least running barefoot seems better for the feet, producing far less impact stress compared to feet shod in fancy, expensive running shoes, according to a study by Lieberman in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature. The study concludes that people seem to be born to run—barefoot…

What great timing, you might think. After all, it was just last week that I blogged about Mark Plaatjes’ thoughts on barefoot running — and two of his key statements, which I agreed with, were:

4. There are no clinical trials that show an effect of barefoot/minimalist running for a prolonged period of time.
5. There are no research studies that prove that wearing traditional running shoes increases injuries or that barefoot/minimalist running reduces injuries.

So does Lieberman’s study fill this gap? No. What he found is that his subjects strike the ground with three times more force when they’re wearing cushioned running shoes compared to running barefoot. This is reminiscent of the study that made waves a few weeks ago (which I blogged about here) that made the convoluted claim that running shoes are worse than high heels. What we’re dealing with in both cases is very indirect measures that may or may not have some connections to the outcomes that matter to us — i.e. pain and injury. I really don’t care how many Newtons of torque my patella is feeling if it doesn’t result in any injury or discomfort.

Now, I haven’t seen the study, so I’ll be very interested to read it when it comes out tomorrow. But given the current wave of popularity surrounding barefoot running, I have a sinking feeling that this is just the beginning of the storm — we’re going to see a whole bunch of studies coming out, accompanied by press releases and news stories, that capitalize on this interest without really telling us what we want to know. Hopefully there are also people doing the long, painstaking, prospective research that would really shed new light on this question.

I don’t mean to sound too skeptical here. I think a lot of what’s said about barefoot running makes very good intuitive sense. If I was growing a batch of test-tube babies to create a distance-running army, I’d probably have them avoid shoes during their formative years to develop the stride we see in Kenyan runners.

But most would-be runners in the Western world are not starting from scratch — and the question of what shoe makes the most sense for a middle-aged, overweight neophyte is still very much open. Even staunch minimalists would acknowledge that running barefoot isn’t an instant miracle cure. (“If you change the way you run quickly ‘you have a high probability of injuring yourself,’ Lieberman says. In general, changes either in running shoes or distance should be no more than 10 percent a week.”)

That may well be true. My feeling, though, is that most people who are REALLY cautious and patient enough that they never change their weekly running distance by more than 10 percent a week will find that they’re able to run successfully in almost anything. It’s like (bear with me here) buying a house to get the financial advantages. We can debate until we’re blue in the face whether owning or renting makes more sense — but for many people, buying acts as a “forced savings” mechanism, since they no longer have any disposable income to waste. Maybe barefoot running acts in a similar way: it forces runners to be cautious and build up very gradually — precisely the approach that works best no matter what you’re wearing.