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The Princeton Longevity Center Medical News

The Deal with Your Heel

By: Tom O'Connor
Exercise Physiologist

Have you heard the hundreds of fitness gimmicks and promises from infomercials to help improve your health and looks?   All these products usually serve a purpose, but generally don’t give the miracle they proclaim. Some of the latest trends in gimmicks are geared towards our athletic footwear. Barefoot running shoes, toning shoes, shoes that workout for us…the list goes on. The ordinary sneaker just doesn’t cut it anymore…or does it?

Running with shoes on is significantly different then running barefoot.  The latest studies suggest that shoes can restrict the foot’s motion during movement and also impose a different movement pattern. Could these different motions help or hurt by injury? And do we need a specific shoe for flat feet, high arches or other feet types? In a study conducted by the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, 1042 men and 375 women recruits were examined prior to basic military training and assigned shoes for their foot type (such as motion control shoes for overpronators) and compared them to a control group of 913 men and 346 women who were given stability shoes. There was little difference between injury risk of the assigned shoe group and the control group. 

And what about no shoes at all? Barefoot running provides a lower spike in force per step because of the type of landing (forefoot landing). Think of trying to walk as quietly as possible… your heel hardly hits the ground. Bare feet also provides feedback that shoes cannot provide.  This can give more sensory information to unlevel ground and terrain, but also will not protect from glass and sharp rocks.  There is some evidence that this sensory information could be a beneficial aspect such as in the article by Robbins et al, “Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations.” The article explains “evidence suggests that sensory feedback largely from the glabrous epithelium of the foot is the element of barefoot activity which induced these adaptations. The sensory insulation inherent in the modern running shoe appears responsible for the high injury frequency associated with running”.  While promising, there is not enough research out there to hold this completely true. There is a sub-territory of barefoot shoes or minimalist shoes that also have just enough support to protect our feet from sharp objects, but maintain the natural barefoot gait. 

On the other extreme, we have shoes that are supposed to workout your calves and glutes.  The Reebok® EasyTone is one prime example with the claim that “Whilewearing EasyTone shoes, a person will experience increased muscle activation in her glutes (28%) and in key muscles in her hamstrings (11%) and calves (11%).”  Does this translate into a better lower body?  While it’s true their study showed more muscle activation and can make someone sore from just wearing them, try any activity you have never done before such as the elliptical, trail running, or even barefoot running!  They will surely give you a similar soreness if you overdo it.

Our bodies adapt extremely well and try to make almost every movement we do more efficient, but there is a learning period for this to happen.  In the case of EasyTone shoes or barefoot running, they all will initially require more muscle activation.  Once our bodies become efficient at it, the high level of increased muscle activation will be more efficient.  This unfortunately means that these forms of running and movement are probably going to be similar to wearing shoes.  These different shoes and modalities can be a good cross train similar to the benefits of cross training in our previous article here.   

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