This weekend 40,000 runners from around the world descended on New York City to match themselves against one of the world’s most famous long-distance races. The 41st running of the New York City Marathon challenged everyone from elite runners to weekend warriors. And a small core of those runners ran the entire 26.2 miles barefoot. 26.2 miles is twice the length of Manhattan and more than the length of 461 football fields — an incredible feat in itself — but even more impressive when run without shoes!
While it may sound crazy, there’s actually a growing body of research to support the advantages of running barefoot, or at least running with shoes that provide minimal support, such as the Vibram brand. As more and more people embrace this trend, it has raised many questions regarding the advantages of barefoot running compared to using traditional running shoes.
Due to effective marketing by athletic apparel companies, most of us have spent the last decade looking for running shoes decked out with gels or air pockets or other cushioning material. But it turns out that this cornucopia of cushioning may not be best for long-distance running. Proponents of barefoot running cite two main problems with these traditional running shoes. First, cushioned athletic shoes isolate critical muscles in the foot, hindering their proper development. Research conducted at Concordia University in Quebec, Canada, found that barefoot runners had better developed foot musculature than traditional runners. Over time, stronger foot muscles create a more efficient stride and protect runners from chronic foot injuries. Second, shoes distort natural running mechanics. A research group led by Daniel Lieberman at Harvard University found that when running in cushioned shoes, people were more likely to land on their heels than on the balls of their feet. This type of running, resulting in approximately 1000 heel strikes per mile, is more prone to injury. Barefoot runners were more likely to land on the balls of their feet, which is a more efficient and less forceful impact on the joints. Over time, better running form reduces the risk of stress injuries to the knees and hips as well as feet.
The birth of the modern barefoot running movement (at least in the Western world) can be traced to the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian runner, won the marathon in record time. He had been unable to find a sneaker that was comfortable, so he decided to run barefoot instead, over the objections of many involved with the race. In 1964, Bikila wanted to run a second Olympic marathon barefoot, but he relented to the wishes of corporate sponsors Adidas and Puma (he ran in Puma sneakers) who wanted to capitalize on his fame among runners.
Despite breaking a small bone in his foot while training barefoot for the 1968 Olympic marathon, Bikila’s incredible display of athleticism in 1960 had already spurred many people to take a closer look at barefoot running. Shoeless running is a common practice in much of the developing world even today, and as more research continues to provide scientific support for it, you’re likely to see more of it. In 50 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if a sizeable number of runners at the New York City Marathon, both those pursing world records and those just looking for a good story, run barefoot.
Peniel Dimberu is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Immunobiology.