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For the past few years, proponents of barefoot running have argued that modern athletic shoes compromise natural running form. But now a first-of-its-kind study suggests that, in the right circumstances, running shoes make running physiologically easier than going barefoot.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder, began by recruiting 12 well-trained male runners with extensive barefoot running experience. “It was important to find people who are used to running barefoot,” says Rodger Kram, a professor of integrative physiology, who oversaw the study, which was published online in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
To the surprise of the researchers, barefoot running, often touted by fans as more natural than wearing shoes, was actually less efficient.
It’s important to note that the study looked only at the metabolic efficiency of wearing shoes, compared with going barefoot. The scientists didn’t evaluate the common claim that barefoot running lowers injury risk.
For the rest of us, the lesson might be that even if you’re not interested in going barefoot, you might want to invest in a slimmed-down trainer. “There is a metabolic cost to wearing really heavy running shoes,” Dr. Franz says. Lightweight models, though, that provide cushioning to spare leg muscles without mass to slow movement may be the physiologically smartest alternative, he says, to being bare.