Credit: Flickr user pedrosimoes7
In 1960, Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila’s victory in the Olympic Marathon in Rome sent shockwaves through the running community. He was the first African to win the marathon, the first black African to win any Olympic gold medal—and not only did he win the race, he ran the entire event barefoot!
Since then, African runners have come to dominate distance-running, but the idea of serious athletes running barefoot has been slower to catch on. Perhaps the assumption was that only athletes from impoverished nations would disdain modern shoe technology—that running barefoot did not give a competitive advantage. Indeed, when Bikila, by then well-established as a premier runner, won the 1964 Olympic Marathon in Tokyo, he did wear shoes provided by a sponsor.
Over the next several decades, when a competitor ran barefoot, he or she was typically viewed as a quirky rebel, not someone studiously using a barefoot strategy to improve chances of success. Frequent barefoot runner Zola Budd of Great Britain, for example, held several world records, but gained infamy in the 1984 Olympics for tangling with American favorite Mary Decker, and became known for fizzling at major events.
More recently, however, new evidence has suggested that running barefoot could be physiologically superior to running even with the best available shoes. Freelance writer Brian Switek was one of several bloggers to take note of a January study that analyzed the running stride of barefoot and shoe-wearing runners.
Switek says the researchers found significant differences in the stride patterns of barefoot runners. Both US runners who’d recently taken up running barefoot and Africans who had been running barefoot all their lives had a different stride from shoe-wearing runners. Barefoot runners tended to land on their toes or mid-foot, while shoe-wearers landed on their heels, taking advantage of the cushioning offered by shoes. Despite the padding, shoe-wearers exerted more torque on their knees than barefooters, whose strides were much smoother.
The study, led by Daniel Lieberman and published in Nature, concluded that barefoot runners may experience fewer injuries than runners who wear shoes.
But other bloggers question these results. There is actually a blog called Barefoot Running Is Bad, devoted to calling out “unscientific mumbo jumbo” on barefoot running sites. The anonymous author of the site offers several critiques of the Lieberman et al. study, including, most importantly, its conclusion. While the study does show a greater load on the knee joint in shod versus unshod runners, whether this actually leads to more injuries is not assessed. Perhaps by absorbing more of the impact in the forefoot, barefoot runners are opening themselves up to more foot injuries. This study can’t tell us.
In fact, there hasn’t been much research on the overall benefit of running with and without shoes. The author of the Barefoot Running Is Bad blog claims that no study has shown that barefoot running leads to fewer injuries than running with shoes. And such studies would be very difficult to conduct: Controlling for such variables as nutrition, training regimen, running form, and other health problems would be quite challenging.
A second question is whether even a conclusive study would help much. There are passionate advocates on both sides of the barefoot running debate. A runner who has successfully avoided injury for years, whether running barefoot or with shoes, would be unlikely to change based on the results of even an exceptionally well-executed study.
Indeed, two weeks ago, the surgeon who blogs as “Orac” took a look at how runners respond to scientific evidence. Many ultra-long-distance runners, who often run races of 100 kilometers or more, swear by the practice of consuming “vitamin I,” ibuprofen, during a race, ostensibly to reduce pain and inflammation. When scientist David Niemen showed the racers convincing evidence that the drug does more harm than good, few runners were willing to change their practice. They were convinced that the drug helped them feel better during the race, despite his controlled experiment showing that it did not.
This sort of dogmatic, unreasoned thinking isn’t unique to runners, as Orac’s post demonstrates with examples from other areas such as medicine. He also cites a study by Geoffrey Munro, which found that when graduate students read studies challenging their beliefs on a topic, they tended to make the claim that science is powerless to prove the point in question, rather than actually adapting their own beliefs.
Among runners, changing minds may be even more difficult. Despite clear evidence that shoes don’t help reduce shocks on the knees, with few exceptions runners wearing shoes win the biggest races (and are handsomely compensated by shoe companies for doing so). To runners, scientific evidence may prove ineffective in countering the countless impressions they see on television and on the racecourse.
Dave Munger is editor of ResearchBlogging.org, where you can find thousands of blog posts on this and myriad other topics. He also blogs at The Daily Monthly. Each week, he writes about recent posts on peer-reviewed research from across the blogosphere. See previous Research Blogging columns »
Originally published May 26, 2010