Running debate: Barefoot vs. shoes

Running debate: Barefoot vs. shoes

A recent study from The Journal of Applied Physiology compared runners’ foot-strike patterns – whether they land heel first or on their forefoot. The goal was to find out which running style may have more benefits for the runner. Barefoot runners tend to land on their forefoot, while runners wearing shoes tend to have heel-striking patterns.

Their research was based on past studies that claim barefoot running may be more physiologically efficient for the body. Researchers from Harvard University, for example, found that people who are barefoot could effortlessly run on hard surfaces without pain or discomfort and may actually reap benefits with this running style, including less injury and pain, and use of less oxygen.

A new study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst takes a deeper look into these ideas. The study included 37 avid runners, 19 who are typical heel-strikers and 18 who land on the forefoot.

Researchers tested multiple scenarios including shoe types, barefoot running styles and preferential and natural foot-strike patterns. They measured oxygen uptake, heart rates and the amount to which carbohydrates provided energy.

Their results showed the opposite of the Harvard study in that they found runners who are heel-strikers wearing shoes had more benefits than barefoot runners. They used less oxygen and burned fewer carbohydrates.

“Because depleting carbohydrates results in ‘hitting the wall,’ or abruptly sagging with fatigue, these results tell us that people will hit the wall faster if they are running with a forefoot pattern versus a rear-foot pattern,” said Allison Gruber, lead author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in a statement.

Gruber says these results challenge engrained theories about minimalist shoes or barefoot running, but they coincide closely with findings presented at last week’s American College of Sports Medicine annual June meeting. There were five studies presented that showed no substantial benefits in terms of physiological benefits to the barefoot-style runner.

“I always recommend that runners run the way that is most natural and comfortable for them,” Gruber said. “Each runner runs a certain way for a reason, likely because of the way they were physically built. Unless there is some indication that you should change things, such as repeated injury, do not mess with that plan.”

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Sarah Scroggins
Sarah Scroggins

Sarah Scroggins, health enews contributor, is the director of social media at Advocate Aurora Health. She has a BA and MA in Communications. When not on social media, she loves reading a good book (or audiobook), watching the latest Netflix series and teaching a college night class.