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'Paleo' running: the athlete's foot?

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Photo: Geber86

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.

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

loading stresses.

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?" 

68 comments

  • I wouldn't be running if I hadn't discovered this approach. As a heavy heel striker and over pronator my knees ached for days after a run- even wearing the best "stability" shoes. Running barefoot or in minimalist shoes my "form" changed and I have no knee pain or hip pain. My achilles give me a bit occasionally but that's a fair trade off for me. I run about 40kms a week and took up running in my 50s.

    Commenter
    Ray Mans Dad
    Location
    Glenmore
    Date and time
    June 04, 2014, 8:44AM
    • You know it's just a simple decision to not heelstrike right? You know the Nazi's weren't irretrievably lost to goosestepping once they go their first taste yeah? I've always run in trainers and always run with my forefeet. It doesn't matter what shoes you put on or leave off.. I could choose to run in a monty python funny walk if I wanted to, but I obviously don't and don't see why this is anything other than another other than a way to get people to buy yet another bit of needless sportsgear in minimalist shoes. Shoes don't change your form, extra padding just makes it easier to not notice you're running in a way you normally couldn't for long periods. Condoms similarly remove a tonne of sensitivity and yet most people don't suddenly lose all ability to understand what to do.

      Commenter
      andrew
      Date and time
      June 04, 2014, 10:06AM
    • Wow- that's a colourful response Andrew. I think you'll find that there is zero drop between heel and forefoot in minimalist runners and anywhere from 12-22 in your average padded runner which accentuates any natural heel strike you may have. I have tried my old runners and I fall back into bad habits quickly because you have to consciously run on the balls of your feet and lift your heel up high to overcome the 20mm drop from your heel to forefoot- you don't do this running barefoot or in minimalist shoes and I don't want to think about it every step. If you can forefoot strike in cuban heels then good for you but I can't. As an oldie I just wanted to share my experience so others that have knee pain might like to give it a go. Not for everyone but it certainly helped me.

      Commenter
      Ray Mans Dad
      Location
      Glenmore
      Date and time
      June 04, 2014, 10:43AM
    • Well I had assumed I could safely leave out the Stilletto Marathon runners out of the "shoes don't change your form" argument given we are talking about running shoes and not Manolo Blahnik Gel Airs. That said, once leaving a nightclub I did actually do roughly a mile sprint in near cuban heels to outrun some ice crazed miscreant who took offence to me talking to his girlfriend. I guarantee my heels never touched the ground! (And I was completely innocent of wanting to do anything to his girlfriend that would have necessitated the aforementioned desensitising)

      Commenter
      andrew
      Date and time
      June 04, 2014, 11:21AM
    • I think Andrew's point is that you can actually adjust your running style and that consciously making a decision to adjust your technique, and putting the effort into doing so, might be a better solution for many than expecting that all they need to do is buy a different pair of shoes.

      When I first decided I would do some running, one of the first thing I did was do a bit of research on good running technique. Found out my technique wasn't great, was heel striking because I was trying to stride to long. Felt a bit weird when I first tried to change, and yes had to think about it and correct myself when I reverted back to habits, but it didn't take that long to adjust.

      Commenter
      Uncle Snapper
      Date and time
      June 04, 2014, 11:26AM
    • @ Andrew, what is good for the goose has got to be good for the gander right. I have been running all my life. From my teens to mid twenties I joined a gym and packed on a few kg's of muscle. So I am not on the light side - looking back probably not the best choice I have ever made.

      None the less, currently I run about 50km in a week. In cushioned running shoes I used to heel strike heavily, after day 4 of running my knees would be yelling at me to stop. Since I researched barefoot running and running in minimalist shoes and giving it a go I can honestly tell you that my knees have not felt better. I do understand that most of the theories behind it does not have conclusive enough data to prove the facts. But for me as the research suggest that you have to focus on forefoot or mid foot striking when running barefoot - I did not have to focus at all. It just happened without me thinking about it.

      On the odd occasion when I do run in my runners I focus to keep the forefoot striking up. But when I am tired and throwing away form I naturally return to heel striking.

      I say try it before you go and make assumptions - if it then does not work for you - share the experience.

      One last thing - as the research and recommendation suggest. When you attempt barefoot or minimalist shoe running - take it slow very slow at the start and work your way up.

      Commenter
      DH
      Location
      Thinking about my barefoot run in lunch time
      Date and time
      June 04, 2014, 11:37AM
    • hey @ Andrew. - glad this is staying light- hearted. On reflection Tom Cruise and Sly Stallone can put up good times in cubans so there is a precedent there - they might look a bit better than me too in my barefeet and compression running shorts. I still reckon I'll have the better knees though.

      Commenter
      Ray Mans Dad
      Location
      Glenmore
      Date and time
      June 04, 2014, 12:44PM
    • DH, I'm not bagging out barefoot or barefoot-profile-shoe-running, I'm saying you can get the exact same forefoot running benefits by running forefoot in normal trainers and you don't need to fork out another $200 on high end Vibram Fivefingers. The change in gait with forefoot running far outweighs a few mm in the heel. If you've only got office shoes and want to get into running and decide to get Vibrams then tally ho, go nuts, I'd probably do the same. If you've got more money than sense and are the kind of person than spends $10k on a Tour de France bike and lycra when first getting into the sport because.. hey.. you want the best if you're going to bother with it and spending that much will ensure you don't give it up after 3 months (right, right?) then sure buy a whole range of running shoes, that's your own prerogative. I'm just saying rather than getting sucked into the latest fad or use barefoot profile shoes like a placebo for your running style (I'm wearing barefoot shoes, subconsciously I will run more forefoot, also I can sense when i'm heelstriking with more sensitivity and subconsciously correct it) simply run forefoot in your old $50 trainers. It's a decision like "I want to walk" vs "I want to soft "j" jog" vs "I want to sprint".. You consciously change your style in each of those...
      But I'm not going to say you're "wrong" if you can rationalise paying for another pair of shoes and you feel it helps. Maybe $100-$200 is worth it in not having to think about it for you and have your knees saved from a learnt bad running style you can't seem to unlearn. God knows I've paid more money for less convenience.

      Commenter
      andrew
      Date and time
      June 04, 2014, 12:49PM
    • @Ray Mans Dad, well we can't degenerate into bloodsport over running styles can we? Also I may have already run foul of Godwin's Law in my first reply which is probably an internet record in a discussion on barefoot running. Keeping up with your movie theme, I guess my point was that even Maggie Grace could change her running style between Taken and Taken 2 so no one else has an excuse ;) (Google it)

      Commenter
      andrew
      Date and time
      June 04, 2014, 1:41PM
    • The minimalist running shoes I've seen are pretty cheap compared to other brand name sneakers.

      Commenter
      Michael
      Date and time
      June 04, 2014, 2:56PM

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