Running Shoes: Better for You Than Going Barefoot?

By Lenny Bernstein
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It's time for an intimate discussion of a certain part of the human anatomy that doesn't get much coverage in a family newspaper.


Mine are long and narrow, with completely fallen arches. They often hurt, especially when my plantar fasciitis -- a nasty inflammation of the connective tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot -- flares up.

They are spectacularly ill-constructed for their weekly task of running 35 to 45 miles on various surfaces, in the name of fitness and faster marathons.

What do I do about it? The same thing everyone does. I swaddle them in foam, gel, air cushions and all manner of polyrazzmatazz, the latest, lightest and softest materials the running shoe companies provide. I support my flat feet with custom-made orthotics. I slip an extra layer of gel inside my shoe.

But what if all that padding and expense isn't helping at all? What if those shoes and orthotics actually are causing my ailments, or making them worse? What if, all along, I should have been shedding this protective cocoon instead of spinning it ever thicker?

This is the heretical theory of author Christopher McDougall, whose best-selling book "Born to Run" examines a tribe of Indians in Mexico's remote Copper Canyons, the Tarahumara, who run 100-mile races, even into old age, in thin sandals made from strips of rubber tires.

McDougall has reignited the debate over whether everything we think we know about running and running shoes is wrong. This time, there is an ever-larger body of research, and a growing number of runners, to back him up.

"People have been running for at least 2 million years and walking around for millions [of years] before that, and nobody ever wore shoes until fairly recently," says Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, who has begun to run barefoot himself. "I do take an evolutionary approach to running, and I do believe one can run safely and healthfully barefoot."

In a nutshell, here is the argument against the modern running shoe: That raised rear section of the shoe, which offers so much comfort, fundamentally alters your stride, encouraging you to land on your heel. But the heel that nature gave you was never intended to handle the impact forces of running. Each running stride brings forces equal to as much as three times your body weight down on your foot, which, according to McDougall, was designed to absorb that impact on the mid-sole and forefoot.

Because they offer so much protection, and because many models control the way your foot lands, the shoes have made the muscles, ligaments and tendons in your foot and lower leg weaker, the argument goes. Over time, this can lead to injuries. The shoes also bunch toes that were meant to splay outward for balance.

"You wouldn't want to walk around with a neck brace on for the rest of your life if you had sore neck muscles," says Irene Davis, a professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of Delaware and an expert on the biomechanics of running. "It wouldn't make sense. It's the same thing" with running shoes, she says. She also is running barefoot these days.

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