Lieberman says barefoot running is better than shoes


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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.

12 Replies to “Lieberman says barefoot running is better than shoes”

  1. I was actually having a conversation about this exact topic yesterday with a friend of mine. Unfortunately it seems that the “studies” that are done are largely influenced by either whoever is writing the check or whatever will grab the most headlines. Your discussion of what we as runner’s really want, and need, to know is right on point.

    I just found your site a few days ago and love the material. Keep it up.

  2. Thanks, Joe! To be fair, the studies we really want — linking shoe to type to injury rate — would be very time-consuming and expensive to perform. But until they’re done, we’ll just continue arguing in circles, without any real data to back up either side.

  3. I’ve been running in Vibrams Five Fingers for about 8 months in combination with Nike Free and have been strictly running in the Vibrams for the last 3 months. The transition from my New Balance 1064s has been difficult. My biggest problem is calf strength. I’ve had sore calf muscles since the beginning of the transition. I believe that once I drop about 20lbs my calf muscles should be able to support my weight without problems and the soreness will disappear. I’m 170lbs on a 5’10.5″ frame. Once I’m at the proper weight, I’ll know if running barefoot is more efficient.

  4. It’ll definitely be interesting to see how that goes, Richard. Of course, dropping 20 pounds would make you less prone to injury in your NB 1064s too!

  5. I was hoping it was Joe Lieberman!

    Seriously though, it is interesting that there is so much buzz around this idea now. Why now? Was it McDougall’s book that did it? The Nike Free? Or is it an industry looking to capitalize on over-weight, middle-aged marathoners who have been coerced into marathons by “running clinics,” subsequently overtrained or hurt and are now looking for someone to blame: “Aha! Blame the shoes! It couldn’t possibly be that I am way out of my league and should be sticking to 5ks and 10ks!”

    That is my cynical comment, but I do think there is some benefit, as was mentioned in a previous post I believe, or maybe on a message board somewhere, to doing some training, maybe twice a week, without shoes, to help strengthen joints etc. But the extremism is so typical of the type-A looking for the next extreme challenge set. I’m willing to bet, as with most things, the answer is found in moderation and individual application.

  6. @alex
    That might be true but I’ve been 153lbs in my NBs and had occasional knee pain during the last 8 years. When the pain finally didn’t go away for almost 2 years, I decided to give barefoot running a try. My knee pain is completely gone now and probably because of the new form that I’ve developed which I don’t think I would have been able to develop as well or even discover while running in my NBs. I now land on my forefoot and am much more conscious in using my calf muscles to dampen impact. Shoes with large heel paddings shorten the heel to ground travel. A shorter travel also means larger impact.

    A study showing the correlation between a runner’s body composition and injuries with and without shoes would be interesting.

  7. @John I think your second paragraph is absolutely right on the money.

    @Richard That’s great that you’ve already seen improvement — a good sign that things will get even better. I don’t know of any studies showing correlation between body composition and injury, but I can guarantee (through basic physics) that the joint forces are greater in heavier runners. And that, after all, is what Lieberman’s study deals with! (My point isn’t that barefoot running is bad or good, but that there are many interrelated factors that determine whether you stay healthy or get injured. By changing one, you sometimes start a cascade of other effects that may be even more significant.)

    @Jeff Yep, it was funded by Vibram. That certainly doesn’t mean the results should be ignored, but it’s good to at least be aware of that fact.

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