The History of Running with a Barefoot Edge

Early History

In order to understand why running with no shoes can be beneficial (or at least not harmful) we should look into the period where running seemed to originate. It’s well known that shoes have been around for a long time, although shoes with the specific purpose of running were not necessarily ‘invented’ until the late 19th century. (I place invented in quotations because although shoes have been worn for running and walking on rough terrain for centuries, in the mid to late 1800’s, the first marketable running shoe was designed – read about the origin of the running shoe here: http://www.runtheplanet.com/resources/historical/athleticshoes.asp). According to fairly new research conducted by two professors, Dennis Bramble and Daniel Lieberman, it was discovered that running played a large role in the evolution of the human body.

Millions of years ago, as humans began evolving away from apes, running began to take shape. Over many years of evolution, humans with shorter arms and longer legs began emerging, with many of these attributes dating back 2 million years ago. Apes are not prominent runners, and as humans emerged, four-legged animals had still the upper hand in speed. Bramble and Lieberman’s research suggests therefore, that humans evolved around the concepts of long distance running.

The legs of a human evolved into long distance running machines. Many of the large tendons in each leg, used for spring in a stride when running, are not used in a normal walking stride. Their research explains that along with the useful tendons in running, many large leg muscles including the buttock muscles are primarily used for a prolonged running state. The muscles are accompanied by very large joints, designed to comfort the repetitive impact force of running. Finally, these ancient runners ran the lands in nothing but their bare feet or with very thin coverings. This research, at least, proves that running with minimally clothed feet or bare feet is an integrated design in our bodies and is a traditional running form.

Long distance running was not a disadvantage though, but rather an evolutionary survival tactic. Many four-legged animals developed abilities to run very fast for minutes at a time. In contrast, an athletic human can run at a fairly fast pace for a matter of a couple of seconds. With long distance ability, though, humans can, in time, out run any animal while keeping them within sighting distance. According to Bramble and Lieberman, the many sweat glands and the hairless skin allows humans to keep cool as other animals begin to overheat, giving humans the upper hand in many hunting scenarios.

Take a look at Bramble and Lieberman’s research here.
Or you can take a look at these two articles about the research without having to purchase the document: BBC News Article and New Scientist Article

Modern History

As barefoot and minimalist running begins to make a comeback, the phenomenon did not begin recently. The most famous and well known barefoot runner is an Ethiopian named Abebe Bikila. He ran the 1960 Olympic Marathon in Rome with no shoes and finished with a world record and a gold medal. His victory was not expected, especially because of his bare feet, but he was not the only or the first barefoot runner in modern running.

Lightweight racing flats have always held the ideals that less weight will be faster. Therefore, many runners engulfed in the sport began using much lighter shoes in the 1950’s and 60’s. This also emerged a form of training with weighted shoes to give an illusion of a lightweight shoe on race day.

Apart from lightweight shoes, though, many modern Native American and African runners continue to train in a traditional barefoot or minimalist way. Chris McDougall describes in his book Born to Run how the human body is designed to run long distances as he examines and follows the way of life of the Tarahumara Indians. It is evident in past and current history that the human body can withstand the impact of a barefoot stride. It is evident also that the human body is prestigiously evolved with endurance abilities, a capability that many mammals do not enjoy.