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Do You Really Need Shoes To Run?

Team StoryWeavers|August 13, 2020|

It’s 490 BCE. Greek soldiers clad in impressive battle armour are celebrating. They have good reason to – they just defeated a Persian invasion into their homeland. Their hearts swelling with pride, they decide the news of this victory must be relayed back to the authorities in Athens at the earliest.

The messenger chosen for the task? Pheidippides, a trained foot soldier in the Greek army. Boosted by his country’s victory, Pheideppides runs the entire distance from the battlefield to Athens (roughly 40 kms) to deliver the news. “We won!” cries out Pheidippides just as he collapses from exhaustion. The people of Athens can’t believe their eyes. A man running such a long distance was practically unheard of, but there he was, the evidence of this marvellous physical feat.

So how did the Greeks commemorate Pheidippides’ achievement? They created a sport inspired by the site where the battle was won – the city of Marathon. While historians disagree on the exact course of events, but they do concur that it was Pheideppides’ fated visit that gave rise to the sport of marathon-running.

Modern-day statue of Pheidippides

A Turn in the Road
A sport that has participants across age groups, marathon running has a strong following even today. But, recently, there has been a growing divide among these otherwise peace-loving athletes. The reason lies a little south of Greece, in the city of Rome. The year is 1960 and it’s the 17th Summer Olympics. The first African in history has won the Olympic Gold medal in marathon running. Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian runner just ran 42 kilometres, and he did it without shoes.

Abebe Bikila winning the Olympic marathon barefoot

Run for your Life
Human beings seem to be really good at running. Evidence suggests that prehistoric man’s hunting prowess came largely from their ability to run. Unlike other animals, man can run long distances because of their ability to sweat and cool the body while running.

Evidence shows that prehistoric man was able to hunt down animals before hunting tools were invented, which means they must have been fast runners

So the question then is: If our whole evolutionary advantage is based on running, then shouldn’t we be running like our ancestors? In other words shouldn’t we be running barefoot like Bikila?

Shoo the Shoe?

Research indicates that when you run barefoot, the brain receives important signals from the foot about speed and the force of impact. That’s why some scientists believe that by wearing shoes, we blunt the ability of the foot to send accurate signals. They claim that this is the reason most runners suffer from injuries.

On the contrary, another group of scientists believe that running barefoot can, in fact, cause you more harm. There have been many studies that show people who go from shoe-running to bare-foot running do in fact suffer from more injuries. Then how did our ancestors (and many tribes in modern-day) run for so long without shoes and with minimal injuries? The answer is simple – they were running differently.

The popularity of barefoot running seems to be on the rise. Here is a runner in Berlin, after running barefoot

Put your Best Foot Forward
When most shoe-wearing runners go out for a jog, they run with their heel striking the ground first. Scientists believe that this puts unnecessary pressure on their legs. Barefoot runners, on the other hand, strike the middle or front of their foot to the ground first. Scientists say this distributes pressure much more accurately.

Look at Bikila on the extreme left and the participant labelled “36”. Do you think there is a difference in how their foot is striking the ground?

Scientists who promote barefoot running advise that if shoe runners switch to barefoot running, they must learn to change the way they run too. They claim that if one can start running by striking the middle or front of their foot first, then barefoot running is much more beneficial.

While this makes perfect logical sense, there is still no conclusive research to prove it and “to shoe or not to shoe” remains a divisive question for athletes. Can you perhaps help solve the mystery?

Put on your Scientist’s Coat
The mark of a good scientist is someone who can examine all evidence and come up with a logical explanation. In this case, you have read arguments from two sides – one supports wearing shoes while running, the other doesn’t. Can you try forming a logical answer to which method of running you think is better? Leave your answer in a comment!

Read more stories like these here:

Sports Biology: How an athlete’s body helps them win

The Mars Perseverence Rover – everything you need to know

Understanding how anti-fog glasses work

About the Author


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Deepthi Chakravarthy

Deepthi is an ambivert who is on a steady diet of good food, filter coffee, and self-improvement. Being an ardent reader, storytelling has been her first love and she enjoys exploring how to convey stories compellingly. Having studied psychology and experienced the learning and development field, Deepthi is driven to understand human behavior and to know what makes each of us unique. You are most likely to find her tucked into a cozy corner at a local cafe with a Kindle or a book in hand. If you find her there, stop by and say hello, she'd be eager to learn your story too. Until then, you can ping her at storyweavers@byjus.com for anything you may like to share.

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