Barefoot Running: A New Craze or Here to Stay?
When I recently went for a run on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I felt like an outsider. Let’s be clear, scores of runners sprinkled the white sand. Some raced along the edge of the water. Others jogged through the dunes next to the volleyball courts, slowly making their way back and forth across the wide expanse. There were young girls in thong bikinis and old men in Speedos. Despite the variety in sizes, abilities, and ages, all had one thing in common: they were running barefoot. And there I was, clunking along in my heavy shoes, sinking into the sand.
Their minimalist running intrigued me. But I have always worn running shoes, and with a history of serious injuries, I felt scared to let go of that extra support. I wanted to know: does barefoot running make your feet stronger? And even more importantly: does it prevent injuries?
Barefoot running has become popular in the last five years. But debate has ensued within the running community. While both sides vigorously support their running choice, the science is out. Neither side wins. There is no evidence that barefoot running is better than “shod” running (a fancy way of saying wearing shoes), or vice versa. But there are pros and cons.
Why Try Barefoot Running?
What are some of the positives of ditching your shoes?
1. Barefoot running can modify how your feet strike the ground and reduce impact. Running shoes cause us to strike the ground heel first (known as the heel strike). This increases the force on our feet (and body) by up to 2 to 3 times. In contrast, barefoot running causes us to strike with the ball of our foot (called a midfoot or forefoot strike, depending on where the foot lands). This strike creates less impact. Less force could reduce the risk of repetitive injuries like stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, and runner’s knee.
2. It can make your feet—and arches—stronger. Barefoot running strengthens the muscles in your feet—particularly your arches. As researchers at Harvard argue, “A healthy foot is a strong foot, one that pronates less and is less liable to develop a collapsed arch.”
3. You may expend less energy. The same Harvard researchers argue that when you midfoot or forefoot strike, you use the “natural springs” in your feet and calf muscles. Moreover, barefoot running means you are carrying less pounds around. In other words, you use the muscles in your lower legs and feet more efficiently and you’re lighter on your (shoeless) feet. But then again, other research has proven that heel striking (in shoes) is more efficient. Hmm.
The Cause or the Prevention of Running Injuries?
The positives appear to be pretty good. But remember how I said there was no scientific consensus? We just don’t know if barefoot running actually reduces the risk of injury. The running history of Olympian marathoner Abebe Bikila (Ethiopia) exemplifies how the question of barefoot running isn’t as cut-and-dry as we’d like.
In 1960, Bikila won the Olympic marathon barefoot. His lean body and long stride were accentuated by the fact that he wasn’t wearing shoes. Bikila came back in 1964 to win the Olympic marathon again, only this time with shoes on. In 1968, he had to drop out of the race midway due to an injury. Runners are often faced with injuries, and it is important to know if barefoot running will accentuate the probability of developing one.
Are Shoes The Better Option?
In light of what we know, let’s explore the downsides of barefoot running.
1. It strains other areas of the feet. Going barefoot will change your stride. A switch to forefoot and midfoot striking can strain the Achilles tendon. If you have a history of Achilles tendinitis, this might not be the best option. Some studies have contended that it can also cause bone injuries.
2. Proper shoes and insoles can prevent bad running gaits such as overpronation. When you overpronate, your ankle rolls inward when your foot hits the ground. This can lead to a host of injuries including shin splints and planter fasciitis. Proper shoes and insoles will prevent this.
3. The ground can be unforgiving. Ever run across broken glass, gravel, or dog poop? Glad you were wearing shoes? Not everyone has access to the sand of Copacabana Beach. Serious cuts, blisters, and scrapes can result from barefoot running.
If you’ve been thinking about trying it, start slow. Your leg muscles and feet will have to work in different ways to accommodate your new striking pattern and shorter stride. See if your feet are up to the task. Reduce your mileage. Stretch often. Try minimalist running shoes before going completely barefoot.
Have you tried barefoot running? Let us know your thoughts.