Barefoot Running May Be Harder for Older Runners
July 14, 2015 MVP Blog comments
Experienced older runners who switch to barefoot running may not adjust as naturally to the process as younger runners do, a new study suggests, which could increase their risk of sustaining an injury while running without shoes.
As virtually anyone who runs or is acquainted with runners knows, barefoot running became popular and aspirational in recent years, thanks in large part to the best-seller “Born to Run.” Scientific studies have also suggested that running without shoes could dampen some of the pounding associated with running and could, in theory at least, lessen the incidence of various injuries.
(NYTimes.com, by Gretchen Reynolds, Photo Credit Bryce Vickmark)
However, gaining benefits from going barefoot is not as simple as just removing your shoes. Science shows that you must also change how you move.
Most people wearing modern running shoes hit the ground first with their heels during each stride, in part because many running shoes have a thick, well-cushioned heel that encourages striking the ground with that part of your foot.
Studies, however, with lifelong barefoot runners — most often runners from Africa — indicate that most seem naturally to strike the ground on or near the ball of the foot.
How runners land is important. In biomechanics experiments, heel striking typically results in greater overall pounding than forefoot striking — you don’t land as lightly — and is particularly stressful for the knees and hips. Most heel strikers barely feel those impacts, though, because cushioned shoes absorb much of them.
Meanwhile forefoot landings aren’t marshmallow soft. Your body weight still pounds the ground. But the forces dissipate differently, with less strain on joints and, theoretically, a reduced risk of many common running injuries.
Barefoot running enthusiasts often claim that people will automatically shift to a beneficial forefoot landing if they remove their shoes.
But the evidence to support that contention has been scant, based in large part on a study published in 2013 by scientists at the University of Kansas. Researchers there asked a group of competitive teenage track athletes to run on a treadmill at a variety of speeds while alternately wearing normal running shoes, racing flats (which have virtually no heel cushioning), or going barefoot. They filmed the young runners and found that most hit the ground with their heels when wearing the normal running shoes but immediately and easily shifted to a forefoot landing when wearing racing flats or no shoes at all.
But teenagers do not have older runners’ decades of ingrained experience of wearing running shoes and striking the ground with the heels. They also may enjoy greater cognitive and neuromuscular flexibility than us runners with greater, well, seasoning.
So for the new study, which was presented this month at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the same Kansas researchers repeated their earlier experiment. But this time they rounded up 26 male and female runners who were older.
In this case older, soberingly, meant past age 30. But most of the runners were in their mid-40s. One was 68. All were experienced, with at least 10 years of consistent running behind them, and many had competed.
The researchers had these volunteers run on a treadmill while first wearing their normal, preferred running shoes and then while barefoot. In each case, they strode at increasingly swift speeds while the researchers filmed them. The researchers did not provide the runners with any advice about how best to land.
The motion-capture filming showed that in running shoes, all but three of the group landed on their heels, no matter how fast they ran.
But unlike the young athletes, when the older runners removed their shoes, few of them automatically and naturally shifted their form. A majority continued to hit the ground with their heels.
So they were landing barefoot with the same ballistic force that they had generated while wearing shoes — but without the accompanying cushioning. In effect, they had lost the advantages of wearing shoes without gaining the benefits of going without.
“What we would expect is that over time, running barefoot while persisting with a heel strike would contribute to an increased, not a decreased, risk of injures,” says Dr. Scott Mullen, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Kansas Sports Medicine and Performance Center and lead author of the new study and the study of young runners.
Of course, this experiment was very short-term, involving a single session of barefoot running. But, Dr. Mullen says, the results suggest that “it will almost certainly take longer for older runners than for adolescents to adjust” to forefoot landing when they go barefoot, if they can adjust at all.
On the other hand, the results have a more uplifting interpretation as well. They indicate that if you are an older runner who has been training successfully for a decade or more without a string of injuries, like runners in this study, then “don’t change what you’re doing,” Dr. Mullen says. Barefoot running has little to offer someone “whose running form is working fine.”