The endless debate on whether to train and run barefoot or not has gone on for decades drawing varied views from scientists and health professionals.
Now American Daniel Lieberman, a professor of Human evolutionary biology at Harvard University claims training and running in a barefoot style may be the only way to re-adapt to the original barefoot style of running.
Professor Lieberman, who is also a marathon runner, has adapted to training and running barefoot and believes it is a great experience and with enormous health benefits.
“We are all born to run and the best running style and shoe design is nature’s own. When I finish a marathon, the most relaxing and comfortable part of my body is the legs!” said Professor Lieberman during a recent visit to Eldoret, Kenya to conduct further research on barefoot running.
Health barefoot running clubs, training groups and races designed to run barefoot are all as a result of Lieberman’s rigorous study to prove that man was designed to run fast for survival and the introduction of modern shoes has changed the way we run. He is now advising elite runners not to dump the shoes but run in a barefoot style.
Lieberman conducted his research in South Nandi District, home to some of Kenya’s top marathon runners like Felix Limo, Rodgers Rop, Asbel Kirui among others.
According to the research findings, most children from the area trek for about 20km to school without shoes and their energy expenditure show huge amounts of calories they use. Their level of fitness is relatively higher than urban-based children. Their Vo2max(Maximal Oxygen uptake while exercising)is as high as the elite runners in Eldoret against their age.
The Professor of Anthropology believes that this could be one of the reasons for their good performance in athletics.
Lieberman’s previous barefoot research was based on general health benefits of running but his focus shifted to the study of elite performance.
During his visit to Eldoret the home of the athletics, the Professor took time to explain to Kenya’s top runners-the benefits associated with running barefoot.
Most rural based children in Kenya do not wear shoes when they start training but this changes once they join training camps and attend competitions. The Professor is of the opinion that the rapid transition from training barefoot to racing with shoes, could explain why Kenyan athletes are prone to injuries.
Lieberman who heads the department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University argued that the reason why Kenyan runners are unbeatable in athletics is because they land on the ground so gently hitting their heels less.
The Professor’s recent publication titled Nature using Kinematic and kinetic analyses suggests that even on hard surfaces, barefoot runners with fore-foot strike patterns generate smaller collision forces than shod rear-foot strikers.
He argues that the impact one creates while running a full marathon is much more than the weight of your body causing tiny cracks in your bones. This damage he argues can be minimized when you train your body to run in a natural foot strike pattern (fore-foot strike)’; a style that most if not all athletes in Kenya have.
During his visit to the Rift Valley, Lieberman also met prospective Harvard University scholarship beneficiaries at the Iten High Altitude Training centre, and revived the debate on his research findings.
He stressed that he does not advocate for running barefoot but running in a barefoot style as it has been reported widely.
“I race barefoot. I feel a great difference and this may be the only way to avoid running injuries associated with High heeled modern shoes,” he said.
Lieberman and his Research fellow Professor Yannis Pitsiladis of the University of Glasgow also lectured Elite runners, Medical Students, Coaches and journalists on how biomechanics can help to improve performance among Kenyan athletes at the Moi University in Eldoret.
The university talk was organized by a research consortium ICEARS,who are carrying out studies on the limits of running performance among Elite East African runners.
Pitsiladis, a world expert in running economy focused his talk on the main topic of discussion ‘Kenyan athletes, venture into running because of poverty, Education and travel’.
Professor Pitsiladis argued that the media globally is interested in the science behind East African athletes and not the mechanics. Yannis in most of his global public lectures takes a totally different view-that it is not the genes that make these runners fast as their performance is coupled with several aspects like diet, motivation, poverty, and running to school.
Now that most Kenya children run and train barefoot, the Professors push for the barefoot running style could possibly lead to a new design of a running shoe. And if the athletes adapt to the barefoot running style or no shoes at all, what will this mean for the major sports shoes manufacturers?