Posted by Dave on July 6, 2011 | 16 Comments
Runners around the world are currently engaged in an epic battle about the future of their sport: Whether running barefoot is better than running wearing shoes. I wrote an article about it last year, and despite the fact that Seed’s website doesn’t accept comments, I heard from a lot of runners on both sides of the issue.
That’s one reason I was surprised to find relatively little comment online about a study that was published a couple months back, which tested ten runners’ efficiency while running barefoot and wearing shoes. The surprising result: Runners are significantly more efficient when running barefoot versus wearing shoes. If this is the case, why don’t more racers run barefoot—it would seem to give them an advantage, wouldn’t it? This graph shows the results:
It’s a small advantage: The difference is statistically significant only when the results for track running are combined with the results on a treadmill, but it’s a difference nonetheless, of about 3.8 percent. The researchers, led by N.J. Hanson, asked runners to run at 70 percent of their velocity at VO2 max (see this post for an explanation of VO2 max, basically the pace when you’re maxing out your lung/heart capacity), while attached to a device that measured how much oxygen they consumed.
On separate trials, runners either wore or did not wear shoes, on both an indoor track and a treadmill. They were instructed to maintain a steady pace, and had a device they could use to monitor their pace when they were running on the track. Only two of the runners (half men and half women) had previous experience running barefoot, although they were encouraged to try it out on their own before being tested. Not only was oxygen consumption lower, heart rate and the runners’ ratings of their own exertion were lower when running barefoot.
It’s a fascinating result, but I’m a little surprised that the researchers chose such a slow pace at which to measure running efficiency. 70% of velocity at VO2 max is by definition a pretty easy pace. The runners in this study averaged a 6:19 mile at VO2 max. Their 70% pace was a 9:01 mile—not exactly cooking for someone who’s able to run that fast. Indeed, a marathon pace for a runner like this would be closer to an 8-minute pace, so there’s really no competitive situation when they would be running this slowly.
Nonetheless, it’s an interesting study, and one that I hope is repeated at higher running speeds.