The Barefoot Marathoner

New data on how to run:


In 1985, Benno Nigg, founder and currently co-director of the University of Calgary's Human Performance Lab, floated the notion that impact and rear-foot motion (called pronation) were dangerous. His work helped spur an arms race of experimental technology to counter those risks with plush heels and wedged shoes. Running magazines spread the new gospel. To this day, Runner's World tells beginners that their first workout should be opening their wallets: "Go to a specialty running store . . . you'll leave with a comfortable pair of shoes that will have you running pain- and injury-free." 

Nigg now believes mistakes were made. "Initial results were often overinterpreted and were partly responsible for a few 'blunders' in sport-shoe construction," he said in a speech to the International Society of Biomechanics in 2005. The belief in the need for cushioning and pronation control, he told me, was, in retrospect, "completely wrong thinking." His stance was seconded in June 2010, when The British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that a study of 105 women enrolled in a 13-week half-marathon training program found that every single runner who was given motion-control shoes to control excess foot pronation was injured. 

"You don't need any protection at all except for cold and, like, gravel," Nigg now says. 

 
Of course, the only way to know what shoes have done to runners would be to travel back to a time when no one ever wore them. So that's what one anthropologist has effectively done. In 2009, Daniel Lieberman, chairman of Harvard's human evolutionary biology department, located a school in Kenya where no one wore shoes. 

Lieberman noticed something unusual: while most runners in shoes come down hard on their heels, these barefoot Kenyans tended to land softly on the balls of their feet. Back at the lab, Lieberman found that barefoot runners land with almost zero initial impact shock. Heel-strikers, by comparison, collide with the ground with a force equal to as much as three times their body weight. "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." 

Lieberman, who is 47 and a six-time marathoner, was so impressed by the results of his research that he began running barefoot himself. So has Irene Davis, director of Harvard Medical School's Spaulding National Running Center. "I didn't run myself for 30 years because of injuries," Davis says. "I used to prescribe orthotics. Now, honest to God, I run 20 miles a week, and I haven't had an injury since I started going barefoot."

I can't quite go barefoot style just yet. But I've been working really hard, over the past week, to get off my heels and get on to the balls of my feet. One hard thing is the loss of auto-pilot--usually I can hit my pace, and basically pay attention to other things besides running. I don't know if that's a good thing. But with this other running style I'm much more conscious of my body. I keep telling myself to look up--for some reason that helps me maintain. Either way, I was having some minor knee pain before. Now, I have none.

Running aside, I think this is what makes a lot of people uncomfortable about science. It's uncomfortable to acknowledge how little we know, how often we are wrong, and still act in confidence. What so many of us crave is an absolute authority. Like everyone else, I believed in running shoes. But it looks like the science was wrong. In another decade it could (though probably not) come out that it was actually right.

For now, on the recommendation of none other than our esteemed Jim Fallows, I'll be going with the five-toe joints.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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