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By Lorren Eldridge
If you take a stroll through the University Parks at any given time of day, it’s not uncommon, to say the least, to find you encounter someone enthusiastically jogging around the gravel paths. Running is a good way for all of us to de-stress from studying, take a break, and do something healthy to keep our bodies working alongside our brains. But next time you head to SportsDirect for the latest in running footwear, think again. The latest in evolutionary science has a few things to say that may convert you to an entirely new kind of running.
Daniel Lieberman, an American evolutionary biologist, is conducting research at Harvard into the science of running. The basic gist of his article, ‘What We Can Learn About Running from Barefoot
Running: An Evolutionary Medical Perspective‘ is that we evolved to run barefoot on hard surfaces, (ie the savanna in Africa), so when we run our feet naturally land forefoot first. But the padded and supportive running shoes wear these days mean that we can land heel first without it hurting, so we do. Which doesn’t really seem important until you consider that that means every time you take a step you’re putting stress on the wrong muscles in your legs and feet. The basic effect? Flat feet and big stomping footsteps, and more repetitive strain injury. Lieberman cites the statistic that between 30 and 70% of all runners will get a repetitive strain injury of some kind every year, without any indication that the invention of more sophisticated sports shoes is helping. This is because, he thinks, when we land on the wrong part of our feet, we are sending far more force up our legs than they are meant to handle.
Now, as someone who grew up partly in New Zealand, where shoes are shunned as tiny prisons for the feet of the faint hearted, I can hardly say I’m surprised. Running on a solid sports field without shoes on has always felt lighter and easier, not to mention the savings inherent in not buying specialist running shoes. But of course, you may argue, England isn’t exactly barefoot running friendly, with all that glass, dirt, and generally unpleasant debris on the ground in addition to somewhat chilly winter weather. Even the University Parks don’t look too tempting, with their gravel paths which seem designed to mince the undersides of your feet. One option is to run barefoot when the weather is good and wear shoes otherwise, although admittedly that’s not likely to mean much barefoot running. Another is to invest in a highly attractive pair of so called ‘barefoot’ running shoes, which range in price from £35 to well over £100. These work on the same principle as running barefoot: if you land on your heel, it’ll hurt, without the risk that you might accidentally embed glass in your newly invigorated forefeet. But it may well be that the simplest way forward is to embrace your ancestral nature and adapt your running form. Don’t rely on the shoes to cushion your heel: instead concentrate on landing on the ball of your foot.
If successful, this running revolution could do more than prove a scientific point. By treating our bodies the way they evolved to be treated, we can not only reduce the risk of injury from repetitive strain, but actually build better muscles in the feet and legs, increasing endurance, and helping to build that sexy pair of legs that you’re really running for.