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Running Shoes May Do More Harm Than Running Barefoot


Dedicated runners and casual runners alike take note: the running shoes you are wearing may be doing more harm to some of your joints than if you were running barefoot. In fact, running shoes can exert more stress on joints than walking in high-heeled shoes.

As an aerobic activity, running can help improve cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of cardiac disease, lower blood pressure, reduce body weight, improve insulin sensitivity and glycemic control, and relieve stress. According to Running USA, the main reason both men and women start to run is because of weight concerns (21%), and they keep running to stay in shape and stay healthy (about 85%). On the downside, running places stress on joints in the lower half of the body. Repetitive stress on joints and joint injuries are risk factors for osteoarthritis.

A new study set out to determine the impact of running on the knee, hip, and ankle joints when people wear running shoes and when they run barefoot. A group of 68 healthy young adult runners who wore currently available running shoes were enrolled in the study. All the runners were free of musculoskeletal injury and ran at least 15 miles per week. Each of the participants were provided with a running shoe with a neutral design and classification.

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The runners were observed and evaluated by a motion analysis system while running on a treadmill both while wearing shoes and while running barefoot. The researchers found that the runners experienced increased joint torques at the knee, ankle, and hip when wearing running shoes compared with running without shoes. Disproportionately large increases were seen in specific areas; an average 54 percent increase in the hip internal rotation torque, a 36 percent increase in knee flexion torque, and a 38 percent increase in knee varus torque were seen when the participants wore running shoes but not when they ran barefoot.

Although currently available running shoes provide good support and protect the foot, the increased stress on the knee, hip, and ankle joints is a concern, as it is a risk factor for osteoarthritis. The study’s authors suggest the increased stress is likely the result of an elevated heel and additional material under the medial arch, which are characteristic of modern running shoes.

D. Casey Kerrigan, MD, the lead author, noted that the increase in knee joint torques associated with the running shoes (36-38%) was greater than the impact associated with walking in high-heeled shoes (20-26%). Dr. Kerrigan noted that “Reducing joint torques with footwear completely to that of barefoot running…should be the goal of new footwear designs.”

Kerrigan DC et al. PM&R 2009 Dec; 1(12): 1058-63
Running USA website