The Pros and Cons of Barefoot Running

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There is a growing subculture of runners going shoeless and embracing the barefoot running lifestyle. Advocates claim that running barefoot improves foot biomechanics and reduces injury risk. And while studies have found that running efficiency increases by 4% while running barefoot, there is still a lack of well-designed studies comparing the incidence of injuries in runners wearing shoes with those running barefoot.

Footwear to Mimic Bare Feet

Although it may sound like an oxymoron—shoes for barefoot running—larger shoemakers are embracing the semi-barefoot movement by making minimalist shoes that offer little more than a rubber sole for protection from the pavement.

What Are Minimalist Shoes?

Minimalist shoes are lighter than "traditional" running shoes to mimic the way you would naturally run barefoot. They are also lower to the ground and offer less cushioning, which may improve your stride and increase your sensitivity to the ground underfoot. A perk of wearing a minimalist shoe versus going barefoot is that it offers stable grip and arch support while protecting your feet from glass, rocks, or other hazards while you run.

The Debate Over Going Barefoot

Some experts agree with the shoeless runners; wearing shoes weakens the small muscles in the feet and prevents the tendons, ligaments, and natural arches from doing their job. They believe that the result of supportive shoe inserts, orthotics, and extra cushioning is poor foot biomechanics and increased the risk of foot, leg, and knee injuries.

Other experts argue that the right shoes can, in fact, correct biomechanical problems and help reduce injury risk. One could also argue that if treating foot pain was as simple as going barefoot, more podiatrists would recommend it as a simple solution. Most podiatrists, however, still prescribe orthotics to relieve foot pain.

Until more research is available, it's hard to say if shoes are helpful or harmful to your foot health, but the barefoot running trend has spread to the shoe manufacturers.

Pros

  • Strengthens your gait and feet

  • Reduces injuries

  • Forces you to use correct technique

  • May improve balance and proprioception

  • More connection to the ground

Cons

  • Little foot protection

  • May increase Achilles tendinitis and calf strain

  • May increase plantar pain

  • More susceptible to blisters

  • You may look and feel strange at first

Potential Benefits

While going barefoot or wearing the new minimal footwear may not cure all that ails you, the following are some very compelling arguments for going shoeless, or, at least, wearing minimalist shoes:

  • You may develop a more natural gait and strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the foot.
  • Removing the heel lift of most shoes helps the Achilles tendon and calf muscle stretch and lengthen and may reduce injuries, such as calf pulls or Achilles tendinitis caused by short, tight tissues.
  • Runners will learn to land on the mid-sole and front of the foot rather than the heel. The prevalence of heel striking is a direct result of excessive padding of running shoes, and research shows this isn't the most effective natural running stride. Landing on the heel is essentially putting on the breaks every step. The most efficient runners land on the midfoot and keep their strides smooth, light, and flowing. Landing with the front portion of your foot also allows your arches to act as natural shock absorbers.
  • You may improve balance and proprioception. Without shoes, you activate the smaller muscles in your feet, ankles, legs, and hips that are responsible for better balance and coordination.
  • You may feel more grounded. Being barefoot helps you improve balance, but it also helps you stay grounded and connected to your environment. You'll learn to spread your toes and expand your foot so it becomes a more solid and connected base that supports all your movements.

Potential Drawbacks

Suddenly going barefoot or wearing a minimal shoe can be quite a shock to the foot. The transition requires a gradual 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.
  • The bottom of the feet (plantar surface) is soft and tender for most people. Going without a stiff-soled shoe may initially cause plantar pain, or in those susceptible, increase the risk of plantar fasciitis.
  • Almost everyone who switches to a minimal shoe or starts going shoeless will find themselves battling blisters for the first few weeks until calluses are formed. Getting acclimated to the rough ground underneath requires some time and effort.
  • Most runners aren't used to going barefoot, so a minimalist shoe will be a shock to the feet, and the muscles will initially feel overworked. The lower your heels are to the ground, the harder your Achilles tendon will need to work. In some people, this may even lead to injuries such as Achilles tendinitis or calf strain when the typical heel lift is removed from the shoes.

Getting Started

At first, go easy. You will need to acclimate your feet and keep the following tips in mind:

  • Introduce your feet to barefoot running by walking on a rubberized track (a treadmill or a gravel path can also work); your feet will require some toughening up at first.
  • Before running, walk around the track a few times.
  • Once you're warmed up, run a short distance and practice correct running mechanics.
  • Do not do too much too soon. Gradually increase your distance by 10% week after week.
  • After each run, stretch out your feet and check for blisters or any pain in your feet, ankles, or knees.

Practicing Good Running Form

  • Land lightly, smoothly, and quietly on your mid-sole and then roll through to the front of your toes.
  • Use short strides and avoid letting the soles of your feet slap the ground
  • Your heels can touch the ground, but only after you have first made contact to the ground with your midfoot first
  • A common mistake is to push the ground away with your toes, which may lead to blisters over longer distances

After a few weeks of running barefoot and working on correct running technique, try these tips while wearing minimal shoes. You may have to try a few different types of minimal shoes to find the right ones for you.

Don't hesitate to consult with a physical therapist or sports medicine physician if the pain persists beyond blisters and aching soles of the feet.

Going Minimal

Many shoe companies now offer minimal shoes for everything from running to cross-training activities such as weight lifting, yoga, and CrossFit. For running, Nike Free, Terra Plana, and Vibram FiveFingers (like little gloves for the feet) are gaining fans and market share quickly. 

There are many different types of minimal shoes available for women and men, and the right fit and comfort level depends on the shape of your feet, the height of your arches, and any particular bodily characteristics or injuries that may be aggravated by the cushioning found under the heel of traditional running shoes.

Barefoot Shoes vs. Traditional Running Shoes

Traditional running shoes have 10 to 12 millimeters of cushioning in the heels as compared to the toes. This feature of the shoe is called the "heel-to-toe drop" and simply means that your toes drop 10 to 12 millimeters below where your heel is sitting in the shoe. By contrast, minimalist shoes have an 8-millimeter drop or less. Some manufacturers also offer “zero-drop” shoes, which no heel-to-toe drop providing the same effect as running barefoot. This type of shoe holds both your heel and forefoot at the same level and do not offer any stability support.

Minimal Shoes

  • Usually made of light, bendable materials with a low stack height (distance between your foot and the ground when you have a shoe on)

  • Less than 8 mm heel-to-toe drop ("zero-drop" also offered)

  • Runners with more calf flexibility and ankle mobility can go lower in heel-to-toe drop

Traditional Running Shoes

  • Thick heel cushioning and stiff soles (usually due to the materials being used and high stack height)

  • A 10 to 12 mm heel-to-toe drop

  • Runners with an aggressive heel strike and tight calves may do better with a 10 to 12 mm heel-to-toe drop

  • Runners with Achilles tendonitis may briefly need to increase heel-to-toe drop to relieve tension on the tendon

Choosing the Right Pair for You

A good minimal running shoe should be light and have less cushioning in the heels to allow for foot and ankle mobility. Once on, they should feel as though they are an extension of your feet once you are running in them.

The heel-to-toe drop varies greatly from runner to runner and depends on:

  • Speed
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Foot strike pattern
  • Injury history

A minimal shoe with a lower heel-to-toe drop may be better for runners with chronic knee issues, whereas a higher drop will direct more stress to the knees and hips but will be easier on the feet, ankles, Achilles, and the calves.

Choosing the right minimalist shoe for you might come down to some trial and error as you work on your running technique and get better acquainted with your foot strike pattern and the functional movement of your feet.

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