Those $150 supercushioned running shoes you just bought? They may be predisposing you to lower leg and foot injuries like plantar fasciitis, a new study suggests. Researchers analyzed the forces that occur when runners hit the ground heel-first (as is common when wearing modern, cushioned shoes), and mid- and fore-foot first (more common among barefoot runners). The heel-strikers came down harder. "Fore-foot- and mid-foot-strike gaits were probably more common when humans ran barefoot or in minimal shoes and may protect the feet and lower limbs from some of the impact-related injuries now experienced by a high percentage of runners," the authors wrote in a study published in Nature.
This study is but the latest voice in the heated debate over barefoot running. As I wrote last year, some manufacturers have rushed to capitalize on a grass-roots trend that's been around for years, offering stripped-down, barefoot-like shoes. (The new research was funded in part by one of those manufacturers, Vibram USA.) While there's a devoted cadre of truly or nearly barefoot runners, scientists told me when I wrote that story that even if less-cushioned shoes do turn out to be better for some people, someone used to running in the more familiar shoes shouldn't simply toss them in the trash and head out au naturel. If you want to try out some of the minimalist shoes or even no shoes at all, build up gradually and see if it works for you. It's also a good idea to start out on grass rather than a hard surface. Runner's World has a good article in the current issue that offers two different views of the subject.
There's a dearth of research in general on running shoes and injuries, and this study, which calculated the forces of both bare and be-sneakered feet hitting the ground, is far from the last word. The authors, led by Harvard University evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, write that "while there are anecdotal reports of reduced injuries in barefoot populations, controlled prospective studies are needed to test the hypothesis" that fore- and mid-foot strikers have lower injury rates. Even if some scientific consensus is reached, it may not apply to you—it will most likely always come down to different strokes (or strikes) for different folks.