Running Shoes Change the Muscles in Your Feet

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Photo: Ferran Traite Soler

Barefoot running sure had a moment there, didn’t it? For a while, those Vibram FiveFingers were a fad, though this effectively ended in the spring of 2014, when a class-action lawsuit claimed the company made false promises about the health benefits of the silly-looking shoes.

Fans of the FiveFingers — or of running without any shoes at all — argued that a typical running shoe changes the muscles in the feet in some concerning ways. Specifically, cushiony arch support found in many running shoes causes the feet to become weak and lazy — or so the argument goes — because the squishy softness prohibits the foot muscles from doing much work on their own.

Recent research, however, has poked some holes into this theory, including one study out this week that found just the opposite — that running shoes do indeed change the muscles of the foot, but in a good way. As science writer Beth Mole explains at Ars Technica:

To track down the impact of running shoes, researchers at the University of Queensland outfitted 16 healthy volunteers with intramuscular electrodes that recorded the muscle activity in their feet. Then they had those wired volunteers run—both barefoot and shod—on a treadmill rigged with force sensors. The researchers paid particular attention to the muscles in their longitudinal arches, which have a natural spring-like action, bending as the foot lands and recoiling on the lift. The researchers found that when the volunteers wore shoes, their arches didn’t bend as much—about 25 percent less than when the volunteers ran barefoot.

The researchers argued that their findings suggest that running shoes cause an athlete’s foot muscles to work more, and not less. A caveat: With only 16 people in this study, it’s not a definitive result by any means, and, as usual, more research is needed. In the meantime, though, perhaps you should do your part to continue the science on this subject, by purchasing some fancy new running shoes.