by Andy Steiner
Most people living today grew up thinking that in order to run safely, athletes should wear shoes. In recent years, however, that assumption has been turned on its head, with many experts in the field of biomechanics advocating for a return to barefoot running. This spring, St. Catherine University cemented its place as a leader in the study of exercise science when it hosted a discussion on barefoot running — led by the nation's foremost experts on the topic — at the regional chapter meeting of the Northland American College of Sports Medicine (NACSM). The meeting, held on the University's St. Paul campus, was attended by an enthusiastic crowd of 450 — from St. Kate's, several regional universities and the greater sport-science community.
It seemed fitting that St. Kate's should host this prestigious event, given the recent accreditation of the University's exercise and sport science program — the only one of its kind in the state.
"This event, combined with our accreditation, demonstrates to the outside world that St. Kate's is a leader in the field," says Mark Blegen, associate professor of exercise and sport science and president-elect of NACSM's regional chapter. "This was a great opportunity to showcase our expertise."
Barefoot running became the talk of the track in 2009, when Christopher McDougall published his bestselling book Born to Run, which posited that human bodies are designed for running sans shoes. Since then, support for barefoot running has gained momentum. Some barefoot-running advocates have suggested that overbuilt running shoes are merely a profitable marketing ploy in a multi-billion dollar industry. Traditionalists have dismissed the trend as a dangerous fad without scientific merit.
The St. Kate's conference featured Irene Davis, Ph.D., director of the Spaulding National Running Center at Harvard Medical School (who's become known as the Barefoot Running Professor), and Joseph Hamill, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of exercise science at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, who has spoken out against shoeless running.
Hamill received hate mail two years ago after Runner's World quoted him saying that barefoot running "can potentially be very dangerous." Davis, by contrast, told conference participants that the foot is an "intricate device" that performs less efficiently when it's encased in a shoe.
"The speakers highlighted the pros and cons of barefoot running with solid research that will allow runners and athletes to make an informed decision," Blegen says.
At St. Kate's, student-athletes have it both ways. Mike Henderson, St. Kate's head track coach and sports information director, says his student-athletes compete with their shoes on. But he does, on occasion, encourage Wildcat harriers to run drills barefoot. "It helps with strength and flexibility," he explains.
Academic leader Although the conference's timely topic drew a significant crowd, Henderson believes that the takeaway message for many attendees was the wealth of academic opportunities the University has to offer in exercise and sport science.
"An event like this shows that St. Kate's is engaged in a higher level of academic work in a topic that is trending in this country," he says. "It confirms that we are a leader in the field. And it's also a great opportunity to showcase our student and faculty research — and our graduate programs."
During the conference, St. Catherine exercise and sport science students displayed research posters on subjects ranging from vitamin D to vibration boards. They also had an opportunity to discuss their work with professionals and leaders in the field.
Hanan Zavala '12, an exercise and sport science major, says meeting top researchers is invaluable, and participating in timely discussions helped her build important connections for her future.
"Conferences like this one are a great way to get St. Kate's students out in the exercise-science community," she says. "They show that we are an incredible institution and that our program is one in which students grow and reach their full potential."
Other student attendees — future exercise physiologists, trainers, coaches and physical therapists — were engaged and inspired by the barefoot running debate. "There are so many situations where running barefoot doesn't work," says Katelyn Ley '13, an exercise and sport science major. "We can't recommend it for everyone. I liked Hamill's point that we put on shoes for a reason, so why are we trying to take ourselves out of shoes now?"
That deepened perspective fulfilled the day's purpose. "The idea was to help our attendees see that science is not at all about simplistic right-or-wrong answers," says Morris Levy, Ph.D., associate professor of biomechanics at the University of Minnesota–Duluth and a planner of the daylong event. "This was a great opportunity for St. Kate's students to look at the evidence and conclude that the issue is more complex than it seems to be."
"Students gain so much from the experience of attending a professional conference," Blegen concludes. "Whether they're presenting their own research, networking with graduate programs or future employers, or simply expanding their knowledge, they walk away having been exposed to much of what our field has to offer."