Barefoot Running: Is It For You?

In an age of high priced athletic shoes and broken glass on streets, barefoot running is a rare sight. But, more coaches and trainers are turning to barefoot training for their runners and now recreational athletes, tired of expensive shoes and lower extremities injuries, are picking up on this new trend. It is actually not so new, as people have been running barefoot for hundreds of years. Zola Budd made barefoot running famous by breaking the women’s 5000 meter world record in 1984, running barefoot. So, why are we all paying high dollar for cloth and rubber to surround our feet? Are shoes the problem or the solution? Many are not in agreement about barefoot running and the debate between barefoot proponents, coaches, trainers, runners and podiatrists is in full swing.

Proponents

Barefoot proponents claim that the shod foot (foot enclosed in a shoe) becomes weak over time when it is constricted. They also claim that the body is unable to sense the ground and adapt appropriately. This inability to sense and adapt appropriately leads to injury. The body spends more energy when running in a shoe, than when running barefoot. Some runners claim that the few scratches on their feet were much less painful than the blisters they normally have to deal with after a half or full marathon.

Research

The scientific evidence supporting barefoot running is lacking. A few small studies have supported barefoot running. One study in the Internal Journal of Sports Medicine found that there is actually less impact on the feet while running barefoot because of the way the body adjusts to the impact. Another study found that the body uses about 4% more energy while running in shoes as compared to running barefoot. In underdeveloped countries with both shod and unshod feet, comparisons have shown a higher rate of injuries in the shod foot.

Opposition

Opponents don’t find these studies convincing and claim that these studies were too small or not carried out properly. They point to the fact that the study in underdeveloped countries and point out that this tells us very little about injuries and performance in developed countries.

Those opposing barefoot running do so for many reasons. Podiatrists, in general, are some of the more vocal in opposition to barefoot running. The biggest reason for opposition is foot protection. Puncture wounds are the greatest concern for those running without any protective shoe gear. Many podiatrists feel that blisters and injury are due to ill-fitting shoes, not all shoes.

Many argue that since our ancestors did their walking and running barefoot, we should too. But, the surfaces we walk on today are much more rigid and less forgiving than the grass, dirt and even stone roads our ancestors walked on. Glass and metal shards are common on roads and were not a major concern even a few hundred years ago.

There are different types of feet. Some people have very high arch feet and some people have very low arch feet. Some foot types may adapt well to barefoot running, but that doesn’t mean all foot types will. The mechanics of the foot are extremely complicated. Individuals who overpronate (rotate in) and have a flexible and flat foot type, typically need a more supportive shoe and sometimes a custom made orthotic. Individuals with a very rigid, high arch foot type, place a tremendous amount of pressure on the outside of their feet and may need a shoe or insert to help even this pressure out. Both of these individuals would most likely end up with injuries if they attempted to run barefoot.

The general rule is that if you aren’t having any problems with injuries or performance in your current running shoes, don’t change anything. If, on the other hand, your feet fall somewhere in between a high and a low arch and you have bought every expensive shoe and insert on the market, but continue to get injured, you might consider trying barefoot running. If barefoot running is something you would like to try, make sure to gradually work into it. Puncture wounds, scraps, cuts and bruises are likely unless you choose your surface wisely. Start on grass or a soft surface. Consider sand at the beach or even going to the track. Start gradually and slowly.

A Word About Shoes

An ill-fitting shoe can be the cause of many lower extremity injuries. A shoe can put your foot at the wrong angle to your knee and hip, leading to potential injury. A shoe that is too tight can cause blisters at the toes and toenail problems. A shoe that is too loose may lead to tendonitis or cause blistering at the heel. A shoe that is too flexible may contribute to the development of plantar fasciitis (heel and arch pain). A good shoe does not need to be expensive. When looking for a running shoe, make sure the midsole is supportive. Test this by grabbing the toe area and the heel area and try to bend the shoe in half. If it folds in the middle of the shoe, it is too flexible and will not support the foot. Make sure there is enough room at the toe box. Check the heel counter and make sure the heel counter is stiff enough to hold the heel in place to avoid blisters. Above all, make sure that the shoe is comfortable. Wear them around the house, on the carpet, before going out for a run.

Summary

There are probably a few individuals who could improve their performance and decrease their rate of injury by running barefoot. But, before you toss your shoes in the garbage can and head out for a run with naked feet, consider a better fitting shoe. Barefoot running is not recommended for individuals with a high arch, a very low arch, those who overpronate or those with diabetes. If you do decide to give barefoot running a try, choose the running surface carefully and be aware of puncture wounds.

Christine Dobrowolski is a podiatrist and the author of Those Aching Feet: Your Guide to Diagnosis and Treatment of Common Foot Problems. To learn more about Dr. Dobrowolski and her book, visit Ski Publishing. To learn more about products for feet, visit Northcoast Footcare.