barefoot running - is it really better?
Credit: Josh Humbert / Getty Images

My friend Christopher McDougall has really nice feet. "Here, feel them," he said recently, proffering a meaty sole. This was a big jump for us, friendship-wise, but he was right: His feet were smooth, supple, and surprisingly clean, given the fact that he runs 40 to 50 miles per week, predominantly on pavement – and barefoot.

We'd been meaning to go for a run together for a year now, but he'd been a little busy. Last May, he published the surprise bestseller 'Born to Run,' which popularized the barefoot-running craze and made him the most controversial figure in running; every time we were supposed to go, he'd get called to New York for 'The Daily Show' or something to explain why, as he wrote in his book, "running shoes may be the most destructive force ever to hit the human foot."

That sentence attacked the way we run and touched off heated debate on internet message boards and in shoe stores. The discussion spilled over into the streets, where impassioned barefooters began sacrificing their soles for what they believed was a healthier run. Major manufacturers such as New Balance and Nike moved swiftly to capitalize on the trend with "minimalist" shoes meant to address concerns like broken glass and rusty nails while offering runners a near-barefoot footfall – none more profitably than Vibram, which repositioned a water sock called the FiveFingers and saw its sales skyrocket.

Inevitably a backlash followed as entrenched shoe companies, alarmed podiatrists, and the running "establishment" cautioned that the legions of barefoot converts risked lacerations, stress fractures, and worse. "If a lot of runners – or all the runners out there in America – [went barefoot] tomorrow," 'Runner's World' editor David Willey warned NPR listeners, "the vast majority of them would get hurt very quickly and would have to stop running for a very long time."

All the debate lacked was scientific evidence: No studies have conclusively shown that running in shoes is somehow better than barefooting, or vice versa. But fascinating new research suggests that McDougall may be on to something – just not quite what he thought.

"The wrong debate has been promulgated by journalists," says Daniel Lieberman, a professor in human evolutionary biology at Harvard whose January study in Nature sheds a different light on the potential benefits of barefooting. "It's not about barefoot versus shoe running – that's a lifestyle debate. It's really a debate about stride technique."