Is Barefoot Running Better for You? A New Study Says No
Ah, barefoot running. It’s back in headlines again. This time, it’s not about the weird fashion statement those (dare I say, ugly?) five-finger shoes make. It’s about a new study questions barefoot running’s health benefits, and whether or not it has any. Like, at all.
Some background: Barefoot running’s core promise is that by allowing people to return to a more natural state of walking and running—i.e. by throwing off the bulk of traditional sneaks and going shoeless, the way our cavemen ancestors did—it reduces injury by strengthening muscles of the foot. There are a variety of ways to achieve the effect of being barefoot, including wearing ultra-light minimalist running shoes or going straight-up au naturel. According to enthusiasts, both options nudge the runner to land near the front of the foot, since there’s no heel cushioning to rely on. Forefoot landing has been thought to require less oxygen than landing on your heel, making for a “harder, better, faster, stronger” workout—well, until now.
According an article in the Journal of Applied Physiology, landing on the front of your foot is actually less energy efficient than landing on your heel. Thirty-seven runners were recruited to participate in the study and classified into one of two groups based on their natural running form: either a forefoot or heel-strike pattern. Each runner was evaluated at three running speeds (slow, medium and fast) to determine the rates of oxygen consumption and the extent to which carbs contributed to total energy expenditure. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that heel strikers used less oxygen to run at the same speed as forefoot strikers and most of the runners used a lower percent of carbs, too.
During a long run, there is a carbohydrate-sparing effect where the body begins to use a higher percentage of fat and lower percentage of carbs for energy. Translation: it will take longer before you “hit the wall” and allow you to keep your run going longer. This means people running on their forefoot will hit the wall faster than those running on their heels, according to the New York Times. So, er, yeah—that’s not exactly helping the barefoot-lovers’ cause.
And it gets worse. Five separate studies presented at a recent American College of Sports Medicine conference found no significant benefits to barefoot-style footwear, including no evidence to support the lessening of foot injuries by strengthening muscles.
So does this mean that barefoot running is officially one big farce? Not necessarily, says study author Allison Gruber—it just might not be for everyone. “I always recommend that runners run the way that is most natural and comfortable for them,” she told the New York Times. “Each runner runs a certain way for a reason, likely because of the way they were physically built.”
Well, there’s a concept: Each person running according to the style that he is physically suited towards, instead of adhering to the latest fad. But don’t tell the footwear industry we said so.