Americans Long Way From Running Barefoot

fromOPB

One Portland, Ore.-area running store owner is exhibiting a runner's calm about news that barefoot running may put less stress on feet, saying Americans are not set up to run barefoot. But companies such as Nike are releasing minimal shoes that that are supposed to simulate barefoot running and other companies are taking advantage of the growing movement.

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So, the science of barefoot running may now be clearer, but what about the business? Companies spend fortunes every year advertising the latest running shoes, and we buy them by the millions.

Kristian Foden-Vencil, of Oregon Public Broadcasting, has some reaction to the barefoot running news from what we might call Americas athletic shoe capital.

KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL: The Portland Metropolitan area is where Nike is based. Adidas has its U.S. headquarters here, as do other athletic brands like Columbia Sportswear and LaCrosse. So news that running barefoot may put less stress on your feet might be expected to put the cat among the local pigeons.

(Soundbite of bells)

FODEN-VENCIL: But at the place where local runners go to buy their shoes, the owner of the predictably named Portland Running Company, Dave Harkin, exhibits a runner's calm.

Mr. DAVE HARKIN (Owner, Portland Running Company): Americans especially, were not set up to run barefoot.

FODEN-VENCIL: The bottom line, he says, is that if youre a dedicated runner, youre going to get injured because the whole idea is to push the limit. And ever since Nike first created a spongy sole using a waffle iron, shoe companies have been using technology to try and reduce those injuries. Harkin concedes running barefoot is good for you. But, he says, with all the glass, stones and assorted litter on American streets, its not going to reduce injuries.

Mr. HAWKING: I think if we made everybody run barefoot, there would be a slaughter of experience. People come back and be not only really, really sore, but other things take place when you run barefoot that arent that great.

FODEN-VENCIL: Local running blogger Heather Daniel agrees.

Ms. HEATHER DANIEL (Blogger, HeatherDaniel.org): You know, back in the day, we werent running on concrete. We were running on the plains that were in nicely padded forests or something - you can imagine something like that. Now, we have concrete and asphalt, and thats just really not nice to your feet.

FODEN-VENCIL: And what are you hearing from businesses - Nike, Adidas, Reebok? Have you heard of how theyre reacting?

Mr. DANIEL: You know, when you look at Nike, a lot of their new shoes, at least their shoes that the runners are interested in, are very minimal. I think the idea is that they want to move toward that - when you look at the Nike Free, which is another style of shoe thats supposed to simulate barefoot running.

FODEN-VENCIL: Its true. Picking up a Nike Free is odd. You expect the weight of a standard, 14-ounce shoe. But at about 5 ounces, it feels very insubstantial.

So, is Nike worried about the new study? They dont seem to be quaking in their boots. In a written statement, they say runners have unique needs that require various levels of structure, support and cushioning, and that they offer different shoes to serve different types of runners.

Predictably, other companies are trying to take advantage of the barefoot-running movement. Lebron sells what can only be described as a toe sock made of thin rubber. Each little piggy gets its own pad, and the idea is that it's like running barefoot, but youre protected if you tread on dog poo.

(Soundbite of beep)

FODEN-VENCIL: The outdoor store REI sells them. And Thomas Bussell(ph) is both a salesman and an evangelist.

Mr. THOMAS BUSSELL (Salesman, REI): People seem to be loving them. I think this barefoot movement has definitely gained some steam.

FODEN-VENCIL: So, companies here dont think this new revelation is going to put them out of business. They think dedicated runners may incorporate some barefoot running into their weekly regiment. But the rest of us can be relied on to buy fancy athletic shoes in preparation for that run - even if we never quite make it off the couch.

For NPR News, Im Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland.

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Study: Humans Were Born To Run Barefoot

Humans are excellent two-legged walkers. It's one of the things that make us such successful creatures.

And there are some scientists who say we're naturally born runners as well, that our bodies evolved to run. Now, anthropologist Dan Lieberman, one of the proponents of the "human runner" school, concludes that we do it better without shoes.

He says human ancestors needed to run well — both away from big animals and after small, tasty ones, for example. He based that view on fossil bones. But lately he's been studying runners — living ones.

Video: A Look At Running With And Without Shoes

Shoes Or No Shoes, That Is The Question

It started at a lecture he gave before the Boston Marathon. A barefoot runner — someone who runs long distances without shoes — peppered the professor with questions he couldn't answer. So Lieberman took him to his lab at Harvard University. He had him run over a flat metal plate that measures the collisional force of a footfall. Lieberman says runners generate a lot of collisional force.

"Most runners, when they land and they heel-strike — they land on their heel — they generate this sudden impulse, this sharp spike of force. So it's like someone hitting you on the heel with a hammer, about 1 1/2 to 3 times your body weight," he says.

Two runners: one with shoes, one without.

Most shod runners land on their heels, which generates a sudden, sharp spike of force. Barefoot runners land farther forward, closer to the ball of their foot, which exerts much less force in comparison. Benton et. al. hide caption

itoggle caption Benton et. al.

But Lieberman was surprised by the extremely low force readings made by the barefoot runner.

"He ran across the force plate, and he didn't have [a high spike], and I thought, gee, that's really amazing, and it kind of makes sense because that spike of force hurts, and I wonder if other barefoot runners do that."

So Lieberman tested several groups of runners: Kenyans who'd been walking and running barefoot all their lives; Americans who grew up walking and running in shoes; and some who had switched from shoes to running barefoot.

On The Ball

Lieberman found that runners in shoes usually landed heel-first. Barefoot runners landed farther forward, either on the ball of their foot or somewhere in the middle of the foot, and then the heel came down — much less collisional force.

And people who switched from shoes to barefoot running eventually, without prompting, adopted the barefoot style. Lieberman, who runs marathons himself, says the reason is simple.

"It's pain avoidance. It's very easy to do. I mean, your body naturally tells you what to do," he says.

Running shoes dampen the shock of a heel-first landing, so that's probably why shod people run that way, Lieberman says.

But is that the most efficient way to run? Lieberman thinks not.

"Turns out that the way in which barefoot runners run seems to store up more energy," he says.

More Spring Out Of The Step

To understand how that works, I talked to anthropologist Brian Richmond at George Washington University. He points out that the human foot has an arch with ligaments inside that stretch and contract with every footfall.

"It allows the arch of the foot and the calf muscles to act as a better spring and to store up energy, and then give it back in the beginning of the next step," Richmond says.

Think of a compressed mattress spring pushed down and then released. Richmond agrees with Lieberman that the front-first landing of barefoot running probably capitalizes on that spring mechanism more than heel-first landing — it gets more spring out of the spring.

Richmond, in fact, has discovered fossilized footprints dating back 1.5 million years. Those human ancestors who left them had an arch. They were walking when they left the prints, but Richmond suspects that when they ran, they landed front-first.

"It looks like this is how our ancestors have been running for a million years or more," he says. "It's only been in the last 10,000 years that we've had any kind of shoes, really."

Lieberman published his findings in the journal Nature. He received research funding from a company that makes "minimal" shoes, which mimic barefoot conditions, but he adds that he received no personal income from the company. He also says he's not taking sides over which style of running is better or safer.

"I mean, I think we have to be really, really careful about what we do and don't know. We have not done any injury studies; this is not an injury study," he says. That's next.

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