We all like to keep up with the times, and fashions, crazes and trends are increasingly influencing the minds of even the on-and-off gym-goer, let alone the die-hard sports enthusiasts. Even over the past few years of heading to the local Southampton University gym, I’ve noticed a significant rise in the number of women and men investing in the latest LuluLemon outfit or colourful Nike Free 5.0s, each setting you back around £100.
However, in the running world it seems we strive for minimalism. Not in pricing I’ll admit, (I like to think the sporting world makes runners seem to pay a premium for their gear because we really only need a pair of functioning legs rather than a carbon-fibre bike or a pony) but in the past few years it is ‘barefoot’ running that has really taken off. For some this is a literal phrase, preferring no cushioning at all between feet and the elements, while for most there is an optimum level of freedom and responsiveness to be gained from a pair of conservative shoes.
The current literature shouts in both directions. Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run first brought the topic into the public eye, advertising the conclusions of Harvard sports scientists that barefoot running naturally changed running style to reduce impact to the heel and spreading weight onto the mid-foot, reducing the chance of hip and knee injury. Many also argue that increasing weight and cushioning dramatically reduces running efficiency and hence requires more energy. So all in all enthusiasts believe we will all run faster, further and more safely with less protection and cushioning.
Safe to say I am not the only runner who is skeptical. Further studies by Rodger Kram at the University of Colorado measured a mixed group of runners to determine changes in efficiency (by measuring how much oxygen they consumed at a given pace) while adding progressively larger weights to their feet both with and without shoes. Runners ran over 5 miles either barefoot or in Nike Mayfly shoes of 135.6g. The main results can be viewed on the graph below. Of course the most obvious trend is that with increasing weight, average efficiency decreases, but only by 1% per 100g added. The most interesting trend is that barefoot was consistently less efficient than shod running independent of the added weight. Runners tended to take longer strides and cushioning enables runners to expend more energy on forward movement than on impact mediation.
Indeed there is a gradient of shoes to choose from, ranging from the Vibram FiveFingers pictured above to Nike flyknits below and a huge range of other shoes by every major brand, simply advertising their products as ‘natural’ or ‘barefoot-like’.
Many argue that the preference is very personal and need not be defined by science and I don’t disagree. I personally have knees that hate me, thus my super-cushioned Asics which probably weight double that of some Nike Flyknits don’t follow the fashion but allow me to run if I’m careful. Although I’d love to give some barefooted nature running a whirl I just can’t trust it, I am a scientist after all.