For runners, the thought of striding along the beach, logging the miles while barefoot is a piece of heaven. Some runners might even entertain the idea of running barefoot on the pavement. But before you unlace your running shoes and throw them to the back of the closet for good, you should ask yourself, "Is running barefoot really better for me?"
There have been a number of high profile barefoot runners over the decades - think Abebe Bikila, Shivnath Singh, and Zola Budd. But the more recent surge in popularity came after Christopher McDougall's 2009 book "Born to Run." In it, he promotes the virtues and benefits of barefoot running.
Despite the resurgence, there's a lot of debate about barefoot running within the running community. While both sides vigorously support their choice, the science is out. There's 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.
Here are some of the benefits of ditching your shoes for barefoot running:
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 University 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 feet. But then again, other research has proven that heel striking in shoes is more efficient. Hmm.
The benefits of barefoot running appear to be pretty good. But with 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 of 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 increase the probability of developing one.
Now that we know the benefits of running barefoot, let's dig into the downsides:
1. It strains other areas of the feet. Going barefoot will change your stride. A switch to forefoot and mid-foot 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 plantar 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.
Now that you know the pros and cons, you can decide if barefoot running is right for you. If do do decide to try it, start slow. You might try minimalist running shoes before going completely barefoot.
When you do run without shoes, remember, 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. And stretch often.
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