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‘A bit surprising’ results: OSU Cascades FORCE lab study raises alert for young runners’ shift to minimal shoes, barefoot

(Update: adding video, comments from FORCE lab co-directors)

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- An abrupt switch to minimal shoes or barefoot running can put youth at greater risk for injury, according to a new study from researchers at Oregon State University–Cascades's FORCE lab.

According to one of the lab's co-directors, David Phillips, the FORCE lab is a "biomechanical research laboratory hoping to prevent or to reduce and prevent injury, as well as optimize human performance in aging."

Lab Co-Director JJ Hannigan, lead author of the study, has been studying running-related injuries for several years in the lab. His most recently published study looks at how footwear affects youth runners.

While numerous clinical studies have focused on how footwear influences running mechanics in adults, few have looked at how different footwear affects running patterns in pre-adolescents and youth.

“This is an important area for future research because, unlike in adults, there is a high rate of physical development and adaptation in children and adolescents,” said Hannigan, an assistant professor in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at OSU-Cascades.

Hannigan pointed to how the magnitude and duration of effects from shoe changes may be larger in young people than in adults.

The study, published in the journal Sports Health, was conducted at the FORCE lab on 14 active males ages 8-14. Participants were asked to run 15 meters barefoot, in a traditional running shoe and in a minimal running shoe, which provides little interference with the normal movement of the foot.

"A big difference between minimal shoes and traditional shoes is simply the amount of cushioning that's in the midsole." Hannigan said during a visit to the lab Tuesday.

Sensors monitored movement of participants’ limbs and joints, and during each run, participants landed a stride with their dominant leg on a force plate that measured impact.

"Force plates -- they're basically big expensive scales. They're able to measure and display how much force you're putting into the ground" Hannigan explained.

Prior to the study, Hannigan and his team, including Christine Pollard, now the campus’s senior associate dean, had hypothesized that compared with traditional running shoes, barefoot and minimal shoes would reduce the forces of impact, alter hip and knee mechanics, and promote the adoption of a forefoot landing pattern.

“The results were a bit surprising, though,” Hannigan said. “Our biggest finding was that when they were running barefoot or wearing minimal shoes, we saw an increase in loading rates – a metric associated with an increased risk for developing stress fractures and plantar fasciitis.”

Hannigan and Pollard found the average loading rate - the runner’s ability to dissipate force upon impact – more than doubled while running barefoot and nearly doubled while wearing a minimal shoe compared to a traditional shoe.

The study also showed significant differences in how the runners bent their knees on each stride while barefoot or in minimal shoes, and that none of the participants’ strides featured a forefoot strike, which is often observed during barefoot or minimal shoe running in adults.

The data did not support a similar study conducted by other researchers in 2019, which proposed minimal shoes may encourage optimal structural development and forefoot strike patterns, a reduction in load rates and less risk of injury.

According to research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, up to 79% of adult runners are injured each year. And while it’s clear running is popular among kids, there’s been much less research on running injuries in youth.

Hannigan said the OSU-Cascades study is especially topical in Bend and Central Oregon, where many families participate in multiple sports, including hiking and running, and children engage in these sports at an early age.

“The message is, if you’re interested in transitioning into a minimal shoe, moderation is really key,” Hannigan said. “If your child has only worn traditional shoes, then you really need to be careful with that transition.”

He anticipated that over a transition time, young runners could adapt to running in minimal shoes.

Hannigan said the OSU-Cascades study isn’t the final word on shoe influences for youth runners, but offers valuable data for consideration.

“It’s important to consider that if adolescents transition too quickly to running barefoot or in minimal shoes, they may be increasing their risk for injury,” Hannigan said. “The take-home is there is no one shoe that’s right for everyone, and for youth athletes, a knowledgeable coach or clinician can help guide their running form through the transition.”

There are several ways for students to get involved with the FORCE lab.

"One is just by volunteering. Often, we engage the students in classes." Phillips said. "You can also take research credits as part of your undergraduate degree in kinesiology and other majors at OSU-Cascades, so you get university credit for coming here and doing research in the lab."

Article Topic Follows: Bend

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Jillian Fortner

Jillian Fortner is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Jillian here.


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