“Barefoot” is the latest buzz word in running circles. Since the 1970s (when sneakers and, subsequently, jogging became popular), the shoe industry has been striving to create the perfect running shoe. However, recent evidence may uncover that the best sneaker is…none at all?! Have you ever worn a mindinsole, perhaps that will give you an idea about what real comfort is all about. Could it be that we’ve misled ourselves all these years into thinking that lighter mesh, gel and matrix filled soles, and cushioney inserts were protecting our feet and joints while they were really doing more damage than good?

According to Daniel E. Lieberman, an anthropologist at Harvard who just published his finding in the scientific journal Nature, barefoot runners do experience significant benefits that their shod counterparts do not. Of key interest is the force of impact. Through the evolution of running footwear, the sole has become increasingly more cushioned and supportive. Therefore, runners tend to land on their heel with each stride (~1,000 times per mile according to Lieberman’s findings). This generates a force that’s analogous to someone hitting you in the heel with an object 1.5-3 times your body weight. In contrast, barefoot runners land either on their midsole or on the balls of their feet. This translates to a greatly reduced spike in force.

Additionally, this way of running appears to allow more energy to be stored in the foot. Brian Richmond at George Washington University attributes this to the fact that landing on the ball or mid-sole portion of the foot allows the arch and calf muscles to capitalize on the spring-like mechanism of the ligaments (more so than heel-strikers). In turn, some of this stored energy can be used to propel the body with each new step. Because the evidence is still in preliminary stages, it might not yet be time to hang up your sneakers for good. There needs to be more long-term studies on the effect of running barefoot on the bones, joints, and integrity of the muscles and other systems involved in running.

Yet, if you are interested in experiencing barefoot running for yourself, I have 2 recommendations. One, if you live near a coast line of other sandy area, experiment with running without shoes there. Sand adds an added bonus that it gives slightly, thereby cushioning your landing and giving your calves an added work-out. Second, invest in a pair of barefoot-simulating shoes, such as Vibram five-fingers. This latest genesis in footwear protects your feet from the elements without changing the conformation of your foot or toes (they actually have little pockets for each toe). I personally have a pair of Vibrams, and have found that, not only have my shin splints disappeared, but my calves and ankles are much stronger now. While I’m a proponent of barefoot running, I do believe it wise to start slowly and build up both speed and distance gradually. Good luck and stay safe!