Barefoot Running – a Podiatrist’s View
By Jack Loveday
Running trends come and go, but few have attracted as much media attention as barefoot running. The subject has provoked fanatical reactions from both ends of the spectrum – those who believe in barefoot running, and those who don’t. I personally do not share the extreme views of either side, so would like to present the key arguments for and against, so that you can make up your own mind if barefoot running might be a good idea for you.
Running without shoes is anything but a new idea, so why all the buzz now? Much of the media attention has stemmed from Daniel Lieberman’s research published in the January 2010 issue of ‘Nature’. Lieberman, ‘the Barefoot Professor’, himself a keen advocate of barefoot running, conducted a pilot study comparing ‘shod’ vs. ‘unshod’ runners and habitual and non-habitual barefoot runners.
Despite the fact that it was not necessarily intended as such, this research was taken as conclusive evidence by many headline grabbing journalists that modern running shoes cause more injuries than they avoid. The Daily Mail for example ran the headline – ‘Searching for the perfect pair of jogging shoes is a waste of time – running barefoot is better for you’.
In short, they came to this conclusion because joint forces measured were lower when participants were barefoot compared to wearing modern performance running shoes. They did not take into consideration the current evidence on the effect of joint forces on overuse injury, nor the many flaws in the research design, or even that it was sponsored by Vibram, the manufacturers of the Five Fingers ‘barefoot shoe’. This media reaction prompted Lieberman to add a disclaimer to his website – www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu –
‘Please note that we do not present data on how people should run, whether shoes cause some injuries, or whether barefoot running causes other kinds of injuries. We believe there is a strong need for controlled, prospective studies on these problems.’
So if you are considering including barefoot running in your weekly running sessions, what are the main potential benefits and dangers of doing this?
Benefits and Pros –
Barefoot running encourages a more efficient, higher cadence, midfoot strike pattern.
Barefoot running can strengthen intrinsic and postural muscles.
Proprioception is increased when the foot is not enclosed in a shoe.
Dangers and Cons –
X No protection from hard, sharp, uneven surfaces and objects.
X Increased risk of infection if running barefoot with cuts/abrasions.
X Our natural forefoot fat-pad is not sufficient on modern hard surfaces – this issue increases with age.
X As cadence increases when running barefoot, this may negate the effect of the argument that joint forces are lower when unshod.
If you feel that barefoot running could help enhance your running experience or improve your ability, there are ways to avoid or minimise many of the dangers listed above. For example, to reduce the danger of sharp and uneven surfaces, you could invest in a ‘minimalist’ or ‘barefoot shoe’. There are many available, the pros and cons of each would require a discussion of its own!
These include –
Nike Free – this is often now considered a ‘fashion’ shoe, however it was originally designed ten years ago as ‘a piece of equipment to protect the feet while performing barefoot strides’.
Vibram Five Fingers – designed to mimic the appearance of an unshod foot, this is about as minimalist as it comes without actually being barefoot.
Newton – designed to promote a forefoot/midfoot strike primarily by making the forefoot ‘lugs’ lower/closer to the ground than the heel.
When considering running barefoot or in minimalist shoes, you need to ask yourself some important questions –
What style or strike pattern do you usually run with? – if you already run with a midfoot strike, high cadence and a short to medium stride length then it is likely to take less of an adaptation period to running barefoot.
Do you have any biomechanical insufficiencies? – if they are notable, then it is likely that barefoot running is not for you or should be kept to an absolute minimum. If you pronate in unipedal stance to the point at which the navicular bone is prominent on the medial side of you foot, then no amount of strengthening exercises are likely lift this bone back into place. If you are unsure of your foot-type or individual biomechanics then you should have this looked into before making the jump into barefoot running.
Do you have any previous injuries? – the role of performance running shoes is to prevent and protect from injury – if you have any weaknesses then barefoot running may amplify them.
What surfaces do you usually run on? – barefoot running should be limited exclusively to soft surfaces such as grass and sand. We may have been built to naturally run barefoot, but we certainly were not built to run barefoot on tarmac!
If you have asked yourself these questions (and answered them honestly!) and still feel that barefoot running is for you, then here is some general advice –
• Don’t think of barefoot running as an alternative to running in shoes – it should supplement your ‘shod’ running and be thought of as cross training – just like you might use weight training, cycling or deep water running to improve your performance. For the majority of people this will be limited to 6-8 100m strides up to twice a week for the greatest benefit.
• Build into any barefoot running schedule gradually and gently, even if you feel fine after your first go.
• Restrict your barefoot training to soft surfaces such as grass or sand.
I hope you have found this helpful if you are thinking about barefoot running for the first time. I do not profess to be an expert in the field of barefoot running, but much of the advice given is taken from people who really do know what is best when it comes to the mechanics of the lower limb.
I would welcome any questions or comments!