Exercise Science major juggles capstone, courses, cross country and kids

March 19, 2012

Ron Shriver is a busy man – a senior Exercise Science major, temporarily a single dad of two, captain of McDaniel’s track teams, and an active researcher of barefoot running.

The former Marine sets his alarm for 3 a.m. to study and train before 5-year-old Miles and 6-year-old Aurora get up for school. When the kids are awake, Shriver’s attention is focused on them. His wife, Jen, a 2011 McDaniel alumna and also a former Marine, is soon finished her master’s in Resource Economics and Fisheries at the University of Alaska and has applied to the Ph.D. program there. The family will reunite this summer and move to Fairbanks.

For now, Shriver is a one-man show.

“I’m probably the only 29-year-old Centennial Conference athlete who does all of his training on a treadmill in his basement,” says the Westminster native, who is equally at home standing in front of the stove cooking dinner while supervising the kids’ homework as he is in McDaniel’s human performance lab watching his research volunteers run in shoes and then barefoot.

No matter where Shriver stands, walks or runs, on his feet are the trademark Vibram FiveFingers – footwear that is more glove than shoe. He’s worn the glove shoes for nearly three years because he believes they allow the range of motion necessary for feet to get stronger.

“Shoes are like casts – they change how the foot would act normally. I consider these (Vibrams) physical therapy for my feet,” says Shriver, who doesn’t advocate barefoot running because he thinks there isn’t enough research to support its value and safety. “That’s kind of why I am doing the study to look at the differences between running in shoes and running barefoot.”

Shriver’s research subjects are not trained runners. In fact, his capstone study depends on them not being trained runners, because he wants to see how people naturally adapt to running barefoot.

He’s using Dartfish, a computer program designed to measure the angles in the foot, ankle and leg while someone is running on a treadmill. Already Shriver has seen big changes – heels take the full impact of foot strike in shoes, while the impact running barefoot is on the front part of the foot and less jolting to the leg and hip than running in shoes. In Shriver’s experience, the adaptation happens naturally.

As a result, barefoot runners take more steps but those steps are more fluid and demand less energy, Shriver says, adding that if the heel strikes first, the action essentially causes the runner to stop and start again. With the barefoot condition there is greater plantar flexion  – a wider angle between foot and leg as the toe is pointing down – the foot rolls across the ground, spreading out the force and making the landing smoother. The body remains in motion with the forward momentum uninterrupted.

“Newton’s laws say that a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion, until a force enacts upon it,” Shriver says, paraphrasing 17th-century scientist Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion.

Shriver became interested in barefoot running three years ago – because, he says, he’s a runner. His running coach Doug Renner adds that he is also “a tremendous young man and a true leader on the team, often spending more time at each meet taking photos and cheering for teammates than actually competing himself.

“Ron’s leadership and dedication to our track and cross country teams has been instrumental in both programs growing in numbers and quality in his time here.”

It’s a hot trend – whether barefoot running is indeed beneficial and how feet are intended to make contact with the ground.

“Some say we are made to run barefoot,” says Shriver, who used Post-9/11 veteran benefits to finance his education. “But nothing is true in science. We can only suggest, we can’t prove anything. I look at this study as providing other evidence to support other research.”

Exercise Science professor Jenny McKenzie advises Shriver’s capstone study.

“Over the course of the year, Ron adeptly applied information from many of his Exercise Science courses to design and conduct his study on barefoot running,” McKenzie says. “Moreover, his willingness to experiment with the Dartfish program and his attention to detail resulted in information that will help add to the knowledge base on this timely and interesting topic.

Shriver isn’t sure which direction he will head career-wise. After graduation, he says the kids will continue to be his number-one priority as he supports his wife’s Ph.D. dreams. Being a physical education teacher is high on his list – a job he says he “would enjoy waking up and looking forward to each day.”

But for now, he is finishing his coursework and capstone with an eye on the summer and traveling to Alaska.

“We’ve bought an RV to drive to Alaska and plan to enjoy the summer as a family,” Shriver says, acknowledging that it is ironic they would decide to drive an RV to Alaska when gas prices have never been higher.