Barefoot Running: Back to Nature (with caution!)
The current trend amongst runners towards barefoot or minimalist footwear such as may have a certain familiarity to it. It does for me; in fact, as a youngster, I enjoyed running barefoot or in thin moccasins while on summer vacations. I fancied myself on numerous adventures as I traipsed through the woods or along the beach. This coincided with the Vibram 5 Fingershippie era when kids of all ages went barefoot as much as possible as part of the au natural/back-to-the-land movement. In any case, by the end of each summer many a pair of feet were tough as leather.
Barefoot Running: Advantages
As it turns out, we were merely doing what humans had done comfortably for millennia. Now, once again, going barefoot, is making a popular comeback, including barefoot running. This trend has been spurred on, in part, due to a multitude of modern foot pathologies everything from The Pain of Morton's Neuroma to Achilles Tendonitis - caused by modern footwear. The idea is that a strong foot is a healthy foot, one that pronates less, and is thus less liable to develop a collapsed arch -- which so many people in modern times end up developing.
So how did our ancestors walk and run on the land without causing acute injury? Recent research informs us that barefoot runners avoid injury by landing on the mid foot or forefoot area, instead of the heel. It has been shown that heel strikes cause sudden, large impacts, which increase the risk of plantar fasciitis and other chronic lower limb injuries because muscles and supporting structures absorb much of the shock.
Other findings show that running in shoes appears to increase the risk of ankle sprains, either by decreasing awareness of foot position or by increasing the twisting torque on the ankle during a stumble. Running barefoot also reduces oxygen consumption by a few percent. It follows that competitive running performance should therefore improve by a similar amount, but there has been no published research comparing the effect of barefoot and shod running on a simulated or real competitive running environment.
Further research is also needed to establish why runners choose not to run barefoot, although common sense speculation is that concerns about puncture, bruising, thermal injury, and overuse injury during the adaptation period are obvious possibilities.
According to the Harvard University funded research website entitled Biomechanics of Foot Strikes & Application to Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear:
It may cost less energy to forefoot strike because you use the natural springs in your foot and calf muscles more to store and release energy. Running barefoot or in minimal footwear (usually lighter than traditional running shoes) means that there is less mass to accelerate at the end of the runner's leg with each stride. Running barefoot has been shown to use about 5% less energy than shod running (Divert et al., 2005; Squadrone and Gallozzi, 2009).
The fact of the matter is, science has had a tough time proving that shoes represent a big step forward from the naked foot. Rather than strengthening the muscles in your foot, especially in the arch, often the opposite occurs.
Lastly, barefoot running feels great because your feet have lots of sensory nerves. The activity can be very comfortable provided you develop calluses.
Disadvantages of Barefoot running and wearing minimal footwear
If you have been a heel striker, it takes some time and much work to train your body to forefoot or midfoot strike, especially because you need stronger feet and calf muscles. If you are a new to barefoot running, you may be at greater risk of developing achilles tendonitis when switching from heel striking to forefoot or midfoot striking. Therefore, it is wise to embark on a training regiment, which includes stretching and strengthening those new muscle groups that have been underused.
Obviously wearing shoes will protect you if you are running over glass, sharp objects, jagged rocks, or ice and they prevent cuts and sores that can get infected. Soil-transmitted diseases is another danger because they can penetrate the skin through bare feet. Wearing shoes will help prevent these diseases, and any long-term risk -- so wear them as the need arises, and treat any wounds!
If you do choose to wear shoes when running, you may want to check out this Review of Barefoot Science.
Finally, barefoot running is definitely an alternative running method worth considering and well worth continued research. Check out this well balanced article outlining the advantages and disadvatages to barefoot running. Get some solid advice from a physiotherapist, kineseologist or doctor before plunging into barefoot running.
If you do choose to run barefoot, it is advised that you exercise caution to develop a program that works best for you. In other words, listen to your body, and use common sense -- and you should be fine!
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This article is a review of the Barefoot Science arch activation system. It offers a first-hand account of how these foot strengthening insoles helped the author overcome achilles tendonitis.