Even If the Shoe Fits, Forget It

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I'm sure you've seen it. It's all over the news. People are finally beginning to come around to that inconvenient truth about our feet, that dirty little secret that shoe companies would prefer to keep under wraps: barefoot is better.

There has been media coverage of the barefoot trend in the past, mostly intermittent, in running magazines and always taking a patronizing tone. It follows the same formula: more idle speculation on a bizarre fad that a select few crazies are promoting, with plenty of u201Cbalanceu201D from stuffy foot specialists expressing doubt that the inherently fragile, gentle human foot could ever withstand the rigors of walking unshod without u201Cserious injury,u201D than any serious consideration of the merits. But now we've got a nice, juicy study to hang our hats (or our shoes) on, and media outlets are falling over themselves to get the scoop.

Witness the Boston Globe's take on the whole thing, or the LA Times feature. The Edmonton Journal got into the action, too, as did the Telegraph, while even San Jose’s Mercury News mentioned the study. The Popular Science blog did a piece on it. And of course, the rest of the blogosphere picked up on it, too: Open Water Chicago, Conditioning Research, and the Chi Running blog, to name just a few.

The study in question was Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman's on u201CFoot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners.u201D (See comparison videos below. The difference between shod heel strike running and barefoot forefoot strike running is visually and graphically captured. For more on what you’re seeing check out NPR’s coverage.) It's hard to believe that this is the first study of its kind, though, probably because it actually isn't. Last year, researchers ran a similar study and decided that u201CFootwear Alters Normal Form and Function of the Footu201D by exerting acute pressure to sensitive areas of the foot, whereas barefoot walkers enjoyed wider forefeet and more evenly distributed locomotive stress. Interesting, but probably because it didn't make any bold pronouncements and because it dealt with the relatively mundane act of walking (rather than running), the study didn't get any press. They could have recommended people throw off their shoes, but that wouldn't be prudent. It wouldn't be responsible. I can't fault them for that, really. Researchers need funding, and you don't want to make bold pronouncements if it means getting cut off or reprimanded. Unfortunately, scientists need to be bold to effect real change.

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