By Ember Rushford-Emery ’13
“When you go out for a jog, your foot will be hitting the ground approximately one time per second.”
Jessica Ventura, assistant professor of kinesiology, has a thing for shoes—so much so that she has undertaken a study of the effect they have on runners.
Ventura’s study focuses on two types of new minimalist running shoes, Vibram Bikilas—the very popular “Fivefinger” shoes—and Skechers GOruns. When barefoot running became a fad after Daniel Lieberman, a biologist at Harvard University, conducted a study that was highlighted in the January 2010 issue of Nature magazine, shoe companies made it their goal to mimic the science of barefoot running.
Ventura’s test subjects run in three types of shoes: their regular cushioned shoes, the minimalist shoes, and barefoot. The data is collected by looking at the changes in the subjects’ stride mechanics while running.
“Basically, our feet were designed for walking and running,” says Ventura. “If we land on our feet correctly, our foot, ankle, hip, and knee work in unison to soften the landing impact, which can be as high as three times our weight.” She highlights how harsh this can be on the body, especially evident through the aging process or while training for a running event. “When you go out for a jog, your foot will be hitting the ground approximately one time per second.”
Minimalist shoes, Ventura explains, are more flexible than regular running shoes. This greater flexibility allows the foot to serve as a natural cushion—as is the case with barefoot running. The resulting lower cushioning and lower heel-toe drop promote runners landing on the ball of their foot rather than on the heel.
According to Ventura, a recent study by Leiberman’s group showed that college-age students who land on the ball of their foot have half the injury rate of those who land on their heel. Ventura’s research, however, goes beyond determining whether or not minimalist shoes are “better” for running in general. “The study is focused on how the running shoe affects your individual running pattern,” says kinesiology major Kelsey Spotts ’13, who is assisting Ventura in her research.
Dr. Ventura’s interest in running shoes is a part of her overall research focus on experimental analyses of gait. It is also a specific, local angle on her global interest in the study of human movement. As a graduate student at The University of Texas (Austin), she spearheaded a biomedical engineering senior design project for a nonprofit organization in Honduras that created a prosthetic ankle joint for amputees in developing countries.
That project led her to co-found a student organization at the university that has since brought a video-sharing program to schools for the deaf in Mali, developed coloring books about health for children in Central America and India, and aided in the reconstruction of Louisiana gulf cities devastated by hurricanes.
Ember Rushford-Emery ’13 (left) took the course Scientific Enterprise with Assistant Professor Jessica Ventura (right), and became very interested in Ventura’s biomechanics work with prosthetic
ankles in Honduras. Ember hopes to pursue a career in journalism.