Sports Science

Olympics Flashbacks: The science of barefoot running and winning gold

"Humans weren’t 'built' for anything, but we certainly evolved to run barefoot."

Total Running Productions

In the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, a previously unknown marathon runner named Abebe Bikila stunned the crowd. The 28-year-old bodyguard representing Ethiopia sped through Rome's cobblestone streets and — just half a kilometer from the finish line — pulled ahead.

Bikila sprinted so quickly that he came in at 2 hours, 15 minutes, and 16.2 seconds. This was 25 seconds before the next finisher. He broke the world marathon record and became the first East African to win a gold medal at the Olympics. All without shoes.

Bikila was the first, and only, modern Olympian to win the marathon running barefoot.

While we wait for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Inverse is looking back on past Olympic moments and celebrating the science of sports.

The Olympic moment: Bikila's boundary-breaking run wasn't even supposed to happen. Ethiopian runner Wami Biratu was slated to compete at the Summer Games until he was injured in a football match. Days before the race, Bikila flew to Rome to take Biratu's spot.

He arrived with one pair of running shoes in hand, worn from training. He tried a new pair but got blisters. On marathon day, Bikila chose to leave those ill-fitting shoes behind and run barefoot.

When asked about his decision to run in bare feet, he said: “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.”

Abebe Bikila running during the 1960 Olympic marathon.International Olympic Committee

The science: Bikila's barefoot victory may inspire distance runners and 5K enthusiasts alike to leave their sneakers at home.

"Bikila may have been on to something," Carey Rothschild, a physical therapist, and researcher at the University of Central Florida in Orlando told Science Daily in 2012. "The research is really not conclusive on whether one approach is better than the other. But what is clear is that it's really a matter of developing a good running form and sticking to it, not suddenly changing it."

Today, the jury is still out on whether Bikila's bare feet gave him a crucial advantage, or whether other factors were at play.

In the past two decades, emerging research and Christopher McDougall's 2011 bestseller Born to Run kicked up a fiery debate about the merits of barefoot running. Some experts argue modern running shoes hamper humans' natural stride, while others say they are vital training tools to prevent injury and stabilize the foot.

Footage from Bikila's 1960 Olympic marathon win.

Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, has been studying the way humans run and walk for decades.

"Humans weren’t 'built' for anything, but we certainly evolved to run barefoot," Lieberman tells Inverse. "Humans have been running for millions of years and shoes were invented only recently – probably in the last 40,000 years."

Until the 1970s, running shoes were designed minimally, he adds. Now, Nike's springy Pegasus, Asics' cushioned Nimbus, and Hoka's pillowy Clifton are common on the road and trail.

"What matters most is how one runs not what is on one’s feet."

It turns out, without shoes, people have a fundamentally different stride.

"In general, barefoot runners land on the ball of the foot before letting down the heel – this is called a forefoot or midfoot strike, and they also tend to take shorter strides, have less of an overstride, and have a higher step rate [about 180 steps/minute]," Lieberman says. "But there is a lot of variation that depends on skill, speed, surface, and other factors."

Generally, running barefoot causes less impact and is easier on the knees, Lieberman explains. Meanwhile, it requires more strength in the calf muscles and puts more stress on the Achilles tendon.

While experts like Lieberman are still unwinding the driving factors fueling running injuries, people tend to get hurt when rapidly mixing up the way they run, like transitioning to barefoot or minimalist running too quickly.

Runner Abebe Bikila rejoicing after his Olympic triumph. Mondadori Portfolio / Contributor Getty Images

If you want to try running barefoot, it is crucial to transition slowly, carefully to build up strength, and learn to run properly, Lieberman cautions. This is also true if you want to try out minimal shoes like Vibram's five-fingers or Nike Frees.

Minimal shoes are not the same as going barefoot, he adds.

At the end of the day, millions of people today run in conventional shoes and have a great time, Lieberman says. And there's nothing wrong with that.

"People should have fun and run however they want!" Lieberman says. "My personal opinion is that running is a skill and what matters most is how one runs not what is on one’s feet."

Still, if you want to be like Bikila, there's no downside in trying it. Just take it slow and watch out for any sharp rocks, glass, or sticks that may injure your feet.

"Just as it is fun to take your shoes off for a walk on the beach or a lawn, it can also be fun to take your shoes off and run barefoot," Lieberman says. "It feels good unless you are on a very rough surface like a gravel driveway. It can also help you work on your running form."

Editor's note, August 5: Inverse incorrectly stated that Abebe Bikila was a former bodyguard when competing in the 1960 Olympic Games. Bikila actually became an imperial bodyguard for Emperor Haile Selassie after the Olympics.

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