Over the years, there has been much interest in the design of running shoes, with product designers building in protection against impacts and other perceived hazards. However, continuing reports of repetitive strain injuries warrant further research and product re-design. The topic has come to the surface recently with a comparison of the forces experienced by feet of habitually shod versus habitually barefoot runners. It emerges that barefoot runners make contact with the ground in a way that avoids impact-related discomfort and injury.
As a matter of observation, most habitually shod runners first contact the ground with their heel. This is referred to as heel-striking or rear-foot strike. Modern running shoes have been designed to reduce the impact forces with the help of additional cushioning at the heel. Barefoot runners first contact the ground with the front part of their feet and bend their ankles more as they run. This is referred to as fore-foot or mid-foot strike. This mode of running results in reduced collision forces and enhanced comfort.
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However, the authors go well beyond the empirical data in their analysis when they ground their work in a framework of evolutionary biology. This is also the starting point for Jungers’ commentary on the research: “A commitment to walking and running on two legs distinguishes humans from apes, and has long been the defining adaptation of the hominins – the lineages that include both humans and our extinct relatives. This form of locomotion (bipedalism) has been around for millions of years, and we have been unshod for more than 99% of that time.” The view, therefore, is that the context for understanding running is that it has evolved as an adaptation under the influence of natural selection.
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There is another perspective on this, which is that of design. Design advocates will affirm: ‘Our feet were designed in part for running’. Humans live in many different environments, and the design issues are affected by the need to walk, jump, climb, carry and run in these different environments. A sensitivity to design means that we need to understand how our feet work best in different conditions, so it follows that runners should adopt a biomechanical and physiological approach to developing good running habits. Runners should train to develop the full potential of the design features of their bodies. An evolutionary story of how ape-like animals developed bipedalism is simply a veneer overlying the empirical data.
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