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Barefoot running is better for your feet

(SPM Wire)  Don’t go tossing out all your shoes just yet. Scientists at Harvard have found that people who run barefoot or in minimal footwear are less likely to damage and hurt their feet than those who run in shoes.

But before you cast aside those expensive jogging shoes, pay heed to the researchers’ calls to ease into barefoot running and to choose your running surfaces wisely.

The key is in what’s known as “heel-striking.” Barefoot runners tend to land on the ball or the middle of their feet when running, whereas runners in shoes typically land on their heels.

“People who don’t wear shoes when they run have an astonishingly different strike,” says Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and co-author of the new research, which recently was published in the journal “Nature.”

“By landing on the middle or front of the foot, barefoot runners have almost no impact collision, much less than most shod runners generate when they heel-strike,” he says. “Most people today think barefoot running is dangerous and hurts, but actually you can run barefoot on the world’s hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort and pain. All you need is a few calluses to avoid roughing up the skin of the foot. Further, it might be less injurious than the way some people run in shoes.”

It’s not just landing on your heels that can cause injury, say the scientists; it’s the basic position of your foot and leg when you run in shoes that can cause you to repeatedly experience potentially harmful impacts.

By studying runners in the United States and Kenya, Lieberman and fellow researchers at Harvard, the University of Glasgow, and Moi University in Kenya examined the running gaits of three groups: those who always had run barefoot, those who always had worn shoes, and those who converted to barefoot running from running in shoes.

The results were striking. Most runners who wear shoes — more than 75 percent of Americans — heel-strike, causing a very large and sudden collision force approximately 1,000 times during each mile they run. Those running barefoot, by comparison, usually land with a springy step toward the middle or front of their feet.

“Barefoot runners point their toes more at landing, avoiding this collision by decreasing the effective mass of the foot that comes to a sudden stop when you land, and by having a more compliant, or springy, leg,”  points out the study’s co-author Madhusudhan Venkadesan, a postdoctoral researcher in applied mathematics and human evolutionary biology at Harvard.

Of course, if you’ve always worn shoes and heel-strike when running, ease into barefoot running, say the experts. Today’s running shoes have been designed to make it easy and comfortable to heel-strike, with heel cushions that lessen the force of the impact.

For more information on barefoot running, visit barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu on the Internet.

Just watch out for pebbles and don’t barefoot run when it’s too cold. And it couldn’t hurt to consult your doctor before kicking off those sneakers!

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