Do our ancestors know best when it comes to our footwear as well as our food?
A new study provides compelling evidence that going back to the way our ancestors ran – barefoot – can be beneficial.
Called the Barefoot Running Project, the study is a collaboration between Osteopathy Australia, sport's performance consultants BAT Logic, ISEAL and the Victoria University. It explores the effect of footwear and foot-strike on our bodies.
Barefoot bandits: the movement towards minimalism has momentum in science. Photo: Johner Images
"This has never been done before and we have a large testing population which includes an AFL team [and] a number of track and field athletes as well," says Ed Wittich, an elite performance consultant involved with the study.
He says whilst the research is still preliminary, the results are proving positive for the barefoot running/minimalist movement.
Using sensors to test stability and impact on the athletes' bodies while running in various shoes, they have found that "controlling the centre of mass (COM) is critical".
Barefoot running, it seems, has the least impact on COM.
When we are barefoot or wearing lightweight shoes, we are more likely to land at the middle or front of the foot.
"Forefoot strikers are better at controlling the COM and likely better at agility movements in running due to the COM but we are studying this further with relation to barefoot training effects as well," Wittich says.
Additionally, he says barefoot athletes had more natural shoulder motion when they ran.
"This could be a positive for shoulder rehab."
While the results suggest barefoot or minimalist running might be considered a form of treatment and/or rehab, he cautions that those who have not attempted it before show "higher ground-reaction forces".
Cushioned shoes less 'natural'?
Cushioned running shoes are a fairly recent phenomenon, and have only become popular in the past 40 years. When people run in them they tend to strike the ground with their heel first.
The impact from the heel reverberates up through the knee.
It has been argued that the heel-strike is unnatural and that our shoes, which are there to be a buffer and protect us, may be causing one of the most common sport's injuries, the aptly named runner's knee.
Unsurprisingly, then, along with the return of the "Paleo" diet has been a move towards a more "natural" way with our footwear too.
Hitting the ground at the front of the foot sends the echo of impact sharply back through the ankle, but has long been considered the more natural style.
Certainly, when we are in full flight, our whole bodies driving forward, we come onto the ball of the foot. The world's top sprinters run on their toes.
"The role of the foot changes in jogging versus sprinting and so do the muscles and forces involved, even down to the microscopic ways muscles may ﬁre," Wittich says.
To test it is more "natural", researchers looked to long-distance athletes; athletes who are running rather than necessarily sprinting.
They studied the techniques of various African villagers who are renowned as being world-class runners or who come from a culture of running long distances on a daily basis.
Some ran with a mid or forefoot strike. Others led with their heel.
It was concluded that both styles were "natural". The running shoes couldn't be blamed. Necessarily.
Shoes: style over substance
The shoes helping to prevent injury in one person could well create them in the next.
Recent studies have found that the forefoot strike, while less likely to lead to knee injuries, increased the likelihood of ankle and Achilles problems.
Those who suffer ankle or foot issues might find something more supportive helpful. "There are certainly times where a transition to barefoot or minimalist running may not be advised," Wittich says.
Shoes that provide cushioning for shock absorption and extra support for stability, however, may not help those with a tendency to knee trouble. They may increase the likelihood of injury.
This research came with the caveat that if you were changing, particularly to minimal, you should do so slowly to give the new muscles, creating support where the shoe once had, a chance to build up.
You may still have to work on the strike of your foot too.
This back-to-basics approach, therefore, may not just be about the substance of your footwear, but your style too.
In the meantime, the Barefoot Running Project continues.
They intend to publish two separate articles on the basis of their research: the lumbo-pelvic effects of barefoot running, and the thoracic spine effects of barefoot running.
"We want to link these findings to posture and breathing mechanics which may further influence performance and injury," Wittich says.
According to the research they are conducting, Wittich says running injury is related to:
1) The position of the limb during foot strike.
2) How the limb responds following foot strike.
3) The state of the biological tissue (muscles/tendons etc) and its ability to respond to
4) The body needs to be good at making subtle variations to minimise fatigue and overuse.
"There will not be a deﬁnitive conclusion until all of the above four issues can be linked to one particular shoe," Wittich says. "Barefoot running has support because in the long-term, it seems to encourage a foot-strike pattern that will eventually facilitate a desirable set of movement solutions that optimise running performance, but also promote long-term health of the lower-limb – and possibly upper body – structures.
"However, in the short-term transition period, the bone structures of the foot will experience unfamiliar stressors, compounded upon by their frequency because of a limited set of adaptable movement solutions that have yet to be learnt by the athlete. The question is: can a shoe protect the foot and also provide desirable movement solutions?"