More Speed or Just Sore Feet?

Thursday, August 23, 2012
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barefoot running research

Professor Tim Quinn (middle) and student researcher Neil Baroody test the running efficiency of shoed and barefoot runners such as Andrew Corrow.

Researchers Put Barefoot Running Through Its Paces

Bob Swarthout looks every bit the experienced long-distance runner as he circles the Reggie Atkins track at UNH one warm August morning. His form is smooth and fluid. He seems to float effortlessly as he clicks off quick miles at less than 6 minutes each. And he’s coached by a team of UNH exercise scientists.

There’s only one thing missing: Swarthout’s shoes.

Swarthout is on track to becoming a barefoot runner, joining a movement among some dedicated runners who believe that running without shoes – as our early ancestors did – is not only more natural, but also easier, more efficient, and less injurious to the body than running with traditional, heavily cushioned running shoes.

It’s an increasingly popular, although controversial, approach to running, and one that finds exercise scientists eager to study the pros and cons.

Tim Quinn, associate professor of exercise science, is leading a new study of about 30 runners, assisted by graduate student Corie Mae Callaluca and undergraduate Neil Baroody. Over the course of this summer and fall, they are studying three groups – barefoot runners, runners wearing traditional shoes and runners who convert from traditional footwear to barefoot running – to measure their relative efficiency and performance. The project also seeks to see how well runners can transition from training in cushioned shoes to running barefoot over a 10-week training program; and how it effects their performance.

“We’re recruiting pretty good runners,” says Quinn, who came to UNH in 1989. “And like most good runners, they’re interested in how they perform… Ultimately, if they can improve their running economy (the amount of energy used at a given pace), they can improve their performance.”

barefoot running

A future coach-in-training, Neil Baroody takes a lap at UNH.

The barefoot running movement was inspired by the 2009 New York Times best-selling book, “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. In it, McDougall describes how a reclusive tribe of Mexican Indians has produced supreme distance runners – training barefoot, suffering few injuries and often out-racing the best ultra-distance runners in the world at races even longer than a traditional 26.2-mile marathon.

While the book prompted many athletes to take up barefoot running, the movement also inspired researchers to explore the pros and cons of running with, or without, shoes – or, with thin “minimalist” shoes that offer only the barest of protection.

Swarthout, 31, is typical of the study’s volunteer subjects. A UNH graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in natural resources and Earth systems science, he is also a longtime runner, having run track as an undergraduate at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland.

After earning his undergraduate degree, Swarthout continued running and competing well in road races. But he also suffered the typical injuries that plague many runners, including irritation of his Achilles tendon. Switching to barefoot running, he hopes, may help him regain some of the form and efficiency he lost since his days in New York. During the study, Swarthout is running many of his workouts on the UNH outdoor track barefoot, but he is using minimalist shoes during his workouts on pavement.

Running barefoot and in minimalist shoes has already had one effect on Swarthout: Since switching from cushioned training shoes, he now tends to land on his forefoot, instead of on his heel – a running style that barefoot-running advocates say is healthier.

“I can definitely feel a difference as we’ve gotten into the program,” Swarthout says. “It feels good, like I’m getting back to the stride I used to have when I ran on the track team.

Baroody, a UNH senior interested in coaching, is helping to lead the training programs for the runners, meeting with them weekly to guide them through a series of calisthenics and workouts on the track.  And Callaluca is concentrating on studying each runner in the lab, measuring changes in their running economy and performance throughout the 10-week cycle.

“I read ‘Born to Run’ and thought it was really interesting,” says Baroody, whose research is supported by a scholarship awarded by the UNH Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research. “I had some questions about it, too … So this study was a great opportunity to look into it a lot further.”

Quinn and his team have recruited about two-dozen runners for the study so far, and hope to publish their results later this year. He adds that this study will be one of the few that details and compares what real runners experience through different running forms and footwear.

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UNH Today