The Topic of barefoot running is coming up quite a bit in various running forums and the opinions are still very divided on what is better for your running. I’ve collected a few post from various runners sources to get a clear overview. First up is Jill Bruyre, she has been coaching runners for over 11 years and made running her business, really. Run with Jill Bootcamp is one of those. She also sells training material to make you run 5km or a marathon. More on her training material can be found here
Barefoot running has become a popular topic among runners in the last two years. No doubt the attention of barefoot running has been inspired by the popularity of the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougal. For decades, there has been a grass-roots movement for extremely minimalist, i.e., barefoot, running. But only in the past few years have companies begun to get in on the act, too. They now offer stripped-down models that do not have the padding and structural elements that characterize conventional running shoes.
The question is, does barefoot running really offer an advantage over shoes? Bare footers will argue that modern running shoes promote a heel-first stride that makes a runner more vulnerable to injuries. Other research suggests that heavily cushioned shoes actually prevent your foot from sensing the ground and can make you stomp down harder than if you didn’t have all that padding.
So, why would you encourage your clients to run barefoot? The biggest reason barefoot running has become popular is because it claims to reduce running injuries and improve foot biomechanics. What’s the evidence behind this notion? And should a person try it? There isn’t strong evidence that barefoot running is any better or worse than running with more structured shoes, in part because there aren’t enough regular barefoot runners with whom to compare users of running shoes. But there’s a lack of a solid evidence base for running footwear in general.
However, many who have switched over to barefoot running claim it has reduced or negated their running injuries.
Let’s back up and talk about why running injuries happen in the first place. It has a lot to do with how the foot strikes the pavement when running. An ideal foot strike is one where the mid foot strikes the ground first and then slowly rolls onto the heel. However, most runners strike heel first, which puts a ton of added pressure and impact on the legs which can lead to a host of running injuries. But, until more research is available, it’s hard to say if shoes are helpful or harmful. But here are the pros and cons that are often discussed when it comes to barefoot running.
Potential Benefits of Barefoot Running
Barefoot running helps to correct the foot strike on the ground, forcing the runner to hit the pavement mid-foot first. This helps develop a more natural gait and strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the foot. Furthermore, the foot has a wonderful feedback mechanism: when you’ve worked it out enough for one day, it tells you quickly! Your arches will be sore, your foot will be raw from pavement or you’ll get the dreaded top-of-the-foot pain. When you run barefoot, your body precisely engages your vision, your brain, the soles of your feet and all the muscles, bones, tendons and supporting structures of your feet and legs. If you do anything wrong, the foot will tell you. The foot is the great disciplinarian. You can’t over-pronate, can’t overtrain and can’t overstride when barefoot running.
So, when wearing shoes, a runner is more likely to use an undesirable foot strike motion due to the majority of the padding placed in the rear of the foot. This causes a runner to more likely strike heel first, an undesirable and injury-prone running motion. Furthermore, the argument is wearing shoes can cause the small muscles in our feet to weaken and the tendons, ligaments and natural arches to stop doing their job. It is believed that the result of supportive shoe inserts, orthotics and extra cushioning is poor foot biomechanics and increased risk of foot, leg and knee injuries.
Potential Harms of Barefoot Running
Suddenly going barefoot or wearing a minimal shoe can be quite a shock to the foot and require a slow adaptation phase. But that isn’t the only concern about a shoeless workout.
Shoes offer a significant amount of protection from road debris such as glass, nails, rocks and thorns. They also offer insulation in cold weather and protect us from frostbite in ice and snow. Most of us are not used to going barefoot, so a minimalist shoes or bare foot will cause the muscles to initially feel overworked. In some, this can lead to injuries such as Achilles tendinitis or calf strain. Finally, the bottom of the foot for most people is soft and tender. Going without a stiff-soled shoe may initially cause plantar pain and blisters.
So, to go barefoot or not? It is a very individual thing which some people can be very successful with, and others cannot. I have coached many who simply cannot make the transition for one reason or another, and I don’t think there is any reason to force them too. It goes back to the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” If you have no problems and no pain, do you really need to change anything?
If you or your clients decide to give barefoot a try, my advice is to start very slow, expect significant calf strain after even your first day of half mile or mile. Suddenly going barefoot or wearing a minimal shoe can be quite a shock to the foot and require a slow adaptation phase. Start off slowly and stop if it doesn’t feel right, since you are probably used to wearing regular shoes. A great way to learn and adapt your feet is to try it first barefoot on a hard but smooth surface like a tennis court, track or grassy field. Your body will quickly tell you what to do. Listen to your body; in the end, the ultimate experts on footwear are you and your body.
For those of you who want to make the barefoot leap and try it out yourself, check out the below list of barefoot gear. Remember, you don’t have to go entirely barefoot. There is a growing list of minimalist running options. The list below is ideal for those that want to strip off traditional running shoes but not go entirely shoeless:
Vibram Five Fingers are the most popular barefoot shoe and are really starting to take off amongst the minimalist culture.
Huarache running sandals are also very popular and inspired by tribesman from around the world.
The Nike Free is Nike’s response to the barefoot running phenomenon.
More on Jill can be found here.
So this is one opinion which sheds the light from two different angles. I went online and looked what other people were saying.
Science daily released an article pointing out that we can (and did so for a very long time) run without shoes without it being harmful to our feet.
“People who don’t wear shoes when they run have an astonishingly different strike”
The article argues, just like in the previous article that;
“By landing on the middle or front of the foot, barefoot runners have almost no impact collision, much less than most shod runners generate when they heel-strike. Most people today think barefoot running is dangerous and hurts, but actually you can run barefoot on the world’s hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort and pain. All you need is a few calluses to avoid roughing up the skin of the foot. Further, it might be less injurious than the way some people run in shoes.”
Although the article promotes running, saying that it is actually possible and perhaps even better for your feet. Some caution has to be taken as it does depend on your running style and your feet how you adjust. I’ve read several blogs where people switch to barefoot running and they do say that you have to start slowly. Just like when you have new shoes you need to give it some time to adjust. For feet you need to give it even more time.
“Running barefoot or in minimal shoes is fun but uses different muscles,” says Lieberman. “If you’ve been a heel-striker all your life you have to transition slowly to build strength in your calf and foot muscles.”
Obviously there are also websites who don’t promote barefoot running, like barefoot running is bad which then get contradicted by these websites like The running barefoot which promote their own case on their own experience or interpreting research is a certain way. On Runners world there was a short head to head interview to discuss both sides which can be found here
I think it is extremely hard to actual judge what is good and what is bad as people walk / run / jog different and has to be decided on a individual basis if its something for you. If something isn’t broken then don’t try to fix it. I would love to try it and just to see what it does and how it feels.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this, i’ve already seen a few comments from some readers on MyRun.com.au discussing barefoot running and sharing their stories.
Happy running and have a great Easter weekend!