A (questionable) study on barefoot running…actually it’s just dumb
*Note, if you’re pressed for time/have ADD, read the first few paragraphs and then go to my conclusion at the bottom.
I was reading Men’s Health and came across the following article on barefoot running. I won’t rehash the article, but based on the study it cites, is proposes that that barefoot running is no more efficient (meaning the amount of energy you’re expending) than running in shoes and in fact, it might increase your energy consumption. Based on what I read about the study, I was a little skeptical, so I pulled up this article, which goes into more detail. Now, if you read that article, what it really comes down to is the following conclusion:
Running in lightweight shoes requires 3-4 percent less energy than running barefoot.
So we’re going to do a thought experiment, go through the study and see how they got to this conclusion and if it’s really anything you should be paying attention to (i.e. be featured in Men’s Health).
First, we’ll start with the research question. Is barefoot running more efficient? Well, more efficient than what? The study envisions the efficiency argument as “how much oxygen people consume (and how much carbon dioxide they produce)” while they run. That’s a fine measure for me. However, let’s be clear about what we’re testing. Barefoot vs. lightweight shoes, barefoot vs. regular shoes? The point of barefoot/minimalist running is that it’s supposed to increase efficiency by encouraging midfoot strikes and good running form. Advocates argue that having less support allows your foot to land less on the heel (which acts as a brake and decreases efficiency, and was advocated by Nike and other inventors of the popular running shoes with tons of cushioning) and more on the midfoot, which increases your stride and allows you to run more efficiently. Basically, land on your midfoot=get that 180 stride goal. So really, what I think the researchers first missed is that point of running barefoot/minimalist. It’s easier to get to the 180 stride goal, thus is more efficient.
What I think they should have done rather was track the amount of energy spent maintaining the 180 stride goal in shoes as opposed to running barefoot or in minimalist shoes. But they did not, so we’ll move on.
So they get a bunch of males who are experienced barefoot runners and have them run on a treadmill. There’s the first problem. The running mechanics for running on a treadmill versus running outside are totally different. A treadmill forces you to keep up with the speed of the machine while running outside forces you to propel yourself forward while the ground stays in one place. But we’ll move on.
They had the runners run in yoga socks on the treadmill, and counted that as “barefoot” running. Then, they had them use shoes. The shoes they wore were Nike minimalist shoes that clocked in at 150 grams. STOP. The shoes they are using as the “shoe” control are in fact, designed to encourage a midfoot strike and 180 strides, JUST LIKE RUNNING BAREFOOT. This part of the study is poorly designed because the appeal of barefoot running and the barefoot running movement isn’t founded on being an alternative to MINIMALIST SHOES that weigh 5oz per shoe, but rather, an alternative to standard running shoes that weigh around 14oz per shoe.
But, moving on. The runners run in barefoot and with the Mayfly shoe. Then the researchers start to add weights to their feet, I assume in order to simulate the weight of wearing a shoe. So what happens is, they have people running in socks, they attach weights to the socks equal to that of the Mayfly shoe, and they compare THAT to running IN THE SHOE! It’s a ridiculous comparison. Running with weights attached to your foot in equal amount to a shoe, does not equal the same mechanic/situation as running with the shoe. From the article:
When subjects ran barefoot with an additional 150 grams of weight added to their feet, about the same amount of weight as a Mayfly running shoe, they were 3 to 4 percent less efficient than when they wore the Mayfly, according to the study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. The reason why is the subjects of another study at the Locomotion Lab. The research has yet to be completed, but Franz said that he thinks the drop in efficiency may have to do with the need for barefoot runners to compensate when the cushioning of the shoe is removed.
NO. The reason why is probably because attaching weights to a foot is not the same as having it run in a shoe. This study really does nothing to solve the debate on whether running barefoot is *better* than running in regular running shoes and even if its methods were better, its findings are really insignificant to the average person who is thinking about switching from 14oz to 5oz shoes.
Really, the problem is that they are simply misunderstanding the barefoot claim. The barefoot claim is really more of a midfoot/stride/form claim. It says that in order to hit the optimal stride, you should run in a light shoe that encourages a midfoot vs. heel strike and 180 strikes per minute. These researchers are trying to pull apart the mass vs. shoe impact, which is stupid because the barefoot purpose is not to make you more efficient than running with weights LITERALLY attached to your socks (like they did in the study).
Pulling apart (studying) the weight vs. shoe mass effects is STUPID because the separation of the two NEVER occurs in real life. Runners add shoes, then they add weight. No one considering switching to barefoot running is going to add WEIGHT WITHOUT SHOES. This study is dumb.