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Barefoot running subject of debate at NACSM conference

In her first visit to St. Paul, Irene Davis, Ph.D., explains the benefits of barefoot running and minimalist shoes at St. Kate's on March 30.
In her first visit to St. Paul, Irene Davis, Ph.D., explains the benefits of barefoot running and minimalist shoes at St. Kate's on March 30.
Photo by Rebecca Zenefski '10.

The debate on barefoot running made strides on Friday, March 30, as two experts continued the dialogue during the regional chapter meeting of the Northland American College of Sports Medicine held at St. Kate's.

Irene Davis, Ph.D., and Joseph Hamill, Ph.D., each gave an hour-long presentation on the differences between barefoot running and shod running, before sitting on a panel to continue their debate in the afternoon.

Davis serves as the director of the Spaulding National Running Center and a faculty member in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, and Hamill serves as professor and chair in the Department of Exercise Science and as associate dean of the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

After offering an historical perspective on the transition from barefoot to shod running, each presenter delved into the biomechanics of the foot in order to explain his or her opinion. They presented supporting research from a number of different studies and also attempted to show the correlation between foot injuries and the decision to run shod or non-shod.

The case for barefoot running

Davis framed her perspective on barefoot running through what she called a paradigm shift in foot strikes, footwear and the treatment of the foot. She explained that the athletic shoe has evolved drastically over time, changing from basic protective footwear to a full-blown running shoe that is meant to offer better cushioning, stability features and modifications for motion control.

“I really think we’ve gotten away from what the primary function of the shoe is,” said Davis. “We have trained our feet to be weak.”

She based her arguments on research showing a difference between the foot fall patterns used in shod running versus barefoot running. In shod running, runners tended to strike the ground with great impact on their heel, whereas in barefoot running or non-shod running, runners tended to strike the ground with the middle of their foot, reducing the impact on the foot.

“Different foot strikes are likely related to different mechanics, resulting in different injuries,” said Davis. 

Davis went on to present a thorough argument for running barefoot or running in minimalist shoes, maintaining that anyone with an intact neuromuscular system can train their feet to perform well non-shod by using the sensory information transferred from the ground to the foot. She advised runners to don minimalist shoes in inclement weather, in the dark and on rough trails, but said that making that change to barefoot running over time can lead to fewer running injuries.

 "[Barefoot] is how we came into the world and it feels great," said Davis.

The case against

Hamill took a different approach to the debate, saying he was interested in finding the answer to one basic question.

“We are the only animal that runs with a variety of foot fall patterns,” said Hamill. “Why do humans have multiple foot fall patterns and what happens when they change?”

He went on to explain the biomechanics of the foot when it is engaged in running, suggesting that there is great impact on the foot regardless of whether it is shod or non-shod and that a change in a runner’s foot fall pattern is not necessarily caused by the runner’s shoe. Hamill preferred to think that humans have developed a change in foot fall patterns out of task specificity.

Throughout his presentation, Hamill shared research on the shockwave that comes up through a runner’s body when the foot strikes the ground and the related waveform and frequencies, as well as research on varying stride lengths, changes in running surfaces, and impact as it relates to injury. He maintained that few variables in a runner’s performance are negatively affected by shoes and that barefoot running can instead be potentially dangerous.  

“There’s got to be a reason why 40,000 years ago people put shoes on their feet,” said Hamill.

The debate concluded with a question-and-answer style panel in the afternoon, where students and faculty shared their own opinions and asked specific questions around foot fall patterns, shoe development and treatments for running injuries.

Undergraduate research

Undergraduate students also had a chance to share their research in a poster session held during the meeting. Students from a broad range of colleges presented research on topics like “Shod Versus Non-Shod Running Effects on 50-yard Dash Times,” “Vitamin D Status and Anaerobic Performance in Division III Basketball Players,” and “Anthropometrics and Agility of Division III Female Collegiate Soccer Players in Relation to Field Position.”

Faculty and students from five states had an opportunity to see the student research projects, including the many faculty and students representing St. Catherine University at the meeting and the two guest presenters.

“I was really impressed by the posters and the level of scientific inquiry by the students,” said Davis.

The conference included participation from more than 400 students and faculty from the five states served by the northland chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine. St. Catherine University Associate Professor of Exercise and Sport Science Mark Blegen, Ph.D., serves as the president of this chapter, which serves Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and parts of Wisconsin and Iowa.

April 4, 2012 by Melissa Kaelin

See also: Faculty, Healthcare, Students