Health Notes: Barefoot vs. shod running, tough day drains exercise willpower

Check out the current Health Notes covering a recent study on running with shoes or barefoot, plus how a hard day can indeed sap your exercise willpower.
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>> Barefoot runners are different than those who wear shoes

And, no, we don’t mean in their heads, all jokes aside. Probably everybody who is active or works in the fitness or outdoor industries, has heard something about the growing trend that advocates running barefoot -- or nearly barefoot only with slipper like coverings as protection. Part of the drive has come from Vibram and its “FiveFingers” footwear, which the company president, Tony Post, once an elite marathoner and still an aggressive athlete, swears by. But despite underground advocacy turning more mainstream of late -- partly due to the 2009 New York Times best-seller “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall -- scientifically pure, peer-reviewed, published research backing up the claims of healthier feet, fewer injuries, faster running and a cornucopia of all-things-good-without-shoes has been mostly lacking. Until now.

A Harvard Ph.D. researcher, Daniel Lieberman, in late January had his research published as the cover story in the prestigious journal, Nature: “Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners.”

For the study, researchers compared foot strike patterns and other kinematics of five running groups, both barefoot and wearing running shoes, both in the USA and in Kenya, adults and adolescents. All were regular runners of at least 20 kilometers a week and no history of injury. They all ran at their preferred running speeds either across force plates in an indoor track or on video over outdoor tracks.

“It’s a common statement: All you need is a pair of shoes,” Lieberman said in an interview on the journal website. “Well, actually that’s not true. You just need feet.”

Lieberman wanted to find out what the differences in gait and impact were: “What we discovered was that barefoot runners often run very differently from the way your typical shod runner runs.”

Basically, runners with shoes on tend to land squarely on their heels with a hard, jarring motion that breaks their forward propulsion.

“It’s like somebody hitting you on the heel with a hammer,” Lieberman said of the impact.

Barefoot runners, he said, tend to land more softly and on the balls of their feet then transitioning down onto the heel gently.

“It converts the energy that would otherwise be a dead stop…into rotational energy,” he said.

The published paper pointed out that the cushioning of shoes induces runners to land more on their heels and may lead to weaker foot muscles.

So what? Certainly not proof that everybody should dump their shoes and dash along the streets barefoot, the study nevertheless puts some credence behind the trend. However, the claims of fewer injuries are simply not proven, as Lieberman also pointed out in the summary, despite anecdotal reports. Running barefoot or only with lightweight protection is potentially something worth a try -- although dirt trails or treadmills may be the desired location for such experiments for many. All this said, it is actually the preferred and more efficient running gait even with shoes to land on the forefoot or even mid-foot (take a look at any technique book); most world-class runners run this way already. It’s just that everyday Joes and Janes end up getting seduced into the cushy heel-landing with the shoes.

For the scientifically minded: The article ran on the cover of the Jan. 28, 2010, issue of Nature (463: 531-535). To view an interview with Lieberman, click here. To view a summary of the article and to find links to other commentary and news, click here. To gain access to the full article, one needs to subscribe or pay an additional fee.

>> Rough day at work does drain your exercise giddy-up

We all know the drain of a rough day -- be it at work, from commuting, a spat with a spouse or in general -- and how it can sap your willpower to get out for a workout. Seems it’s not in your head, that lack of gumption, according to some recent research. 

The study put subjects to the test with draining cognitive and emotional tasks and found those things indeed created what was called a “brain drain.”

“Those things that zap our willpower, they do take a toll on us,” said researcher Kathleen Martin Ginis, kinesiology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The drain was particularly tough on beginners at exercise or newcomers to an activity because of the additional drain of dealing with equipment, transportation and other logistics that are perhaps less familiar. “It just eats away at your self-control.”

She suggested that people “plan, plan, plan” to take away any possible drain that would keep you from an activity or workout. Knowing you don’t have to worry about details or organization lessens the drain, she said. She also suggested getting out in the morning for your activity since you haven’t had time to let your self-control and motivation get dinged.

So what? No myth that willpower is at the heart of getting in your workout or other activity. Planning, pre-packing bags, plotting a rendezvous with friends or hiring a trainer are all things that can keep people on task.

For the scientifically minded: The article was published in Psychology and Health, the Official Journal of the European Health Psychology Society. Click here to access the abstract of the article in the Oct. 13, 2009, issue.

--Therese Iknoian

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