In defense of running shoes

Barefoot running has seen a huge rise in popularity in recent years. But researchers conclude you're still better off sticking with your running shoes.

"In general company, avoid discussion of politics, religion, or sex," goes the ancient maxim of etiquette. If you want to keep things civil among the North Brooklyn Runners, add one more topic to that taboo list: barefoot running.

Barefoot running, as well as running with minimalist shoes like Vibrams, gained new popularity a few years ago after Stanford University coaches claimed their runners suffered fewer injuries when running without shoes. Proponents of running barefoot claim that advances in running shoe technology, with more supportive soles and shoe structure, actually cause more injuries than they prevent.

On the North Brooklyn Runners online message board, pro- and anti-running shoe posts build up heated debates lasting weeks at a time. Converts to barefoot running write as if they're trying to convince everyone else that world is round, while proponents of traditional running shoes post as if they're defending a religious sacrament.

Scientists at the University of Colorado have completed the first in depth study on the physiological benefits of running shoes, the New York Times reports.

Previous studies had suggested that physiologically, the weight of running shoes makes running more difficult. Every 3.5 ounces of weight added to a person's feet appeared to increase their energy cost by about 1 percent.

For this study, the researchers recruited 12 experienced barefoot male runners. They had them wear lightweight shoes, just over five ounces in combined weight. The runners ran multiple times on treadmills, with and without shoes.

To test if barefoot running was physiologically more effective than running with shoes, while controlling for shoe weight, they taped five ounce strips of lead to the top of the runners' bare feet.

Running barefoot with the five ounce strips required four percent more energy than running in the five ounce running shoes. The researchers attribute this difference to the cushioning effect of the shoes.

More importantly, the researchers also found that for 8 of the 12 runners, unweighted barefoot running still required more energy than running in the lightweight shoes.

This study only compared the metabolic efficiency of wearing shoes versus running barefoot, it didn't compare incidence of injury between the two options.

Still, the researchers conclude that most people benefit from wearing running shoes, though they advise runners to choose lighter models.

[via The New York Times]

Photo: Jake Rome/Flickr

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