Potential 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.

The Debate Over Running Barefoot

Some experts agree with the shoeless runners; wearing shoes causes the small muscles in our feet to weaken and the tendons, ligaments, and natural arches to stop 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 this 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 here are the pros and cons that are often discussed when it comes to barefoot running.

Potential Benefits

While going barefoot or wearing the new minimal footwear may not cure all that ails you, there are some very compelling arguments for going shoeless, or, at least, wearing the least amount of shoe possible.

  • 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 forefoot rather than the heel. The heel strike during running only came about because of the excessive padding of running shoes, but 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 on the forefoot 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 with your environment. You'll learn to spread your toes and expand your foot while it becomes a more solid and connected base that supports all your movements.

    Potential Harms

    Suddenly going barefoot or wearing a minimal shoe can be quite a shock to the foot and require a slow adaptation phase. But that isn't the only concern about a shoeless workout.

    • Why Fix What Isn't Broken? If you have no problems and no pain, do you need to change anything?
    • Little Foot Protection. 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.
    • May Increase Achilles Tendinitis and Calf Strain. Most of us aren't used to going barefoot, so a minimalist shoe will be a shock to our feet, and our muscles will initially feel overworked. 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.
    • May Increase Plantar Pain. The bottom of the feet (plantar surface) for most people is soft and tender. Going without a stiff-soled shoe may initially cause plantar pain, or in those susceptible, increase the risk of plantar fasciitis.
    • Get Ready for Blisters. 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.
    • You Will Look Strange. Face it: People will notice, and they may stare.

    Barefoot and Minimal Running Shoes Grow in Popularity

    The barefoot running trend has spread to the shoe manufacturers. And although it may sound like an oxymoron — shoes for barefoot running, some of the 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. Nike Free, Terra Plana and, more recently Vibram FiveFingers (like little gloves for the feet) are gaining fans, and market share, quickly. 

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    Article Sources
    • Michael Warburton. Barefoot Running. Sportscience 5(3), 2001

    • Benno M. Nigg. Barefoot shoes; energy return & future shoe development. Footwear Science, 1942-4299, Volume 1, Issue 1, Supplement 1, 01 June 2009, Pages 80 & 82
    • Nigg BM, Emery C, Hiemstra LA. Unstable shoe construction and reduction of pain in osteoarthritis patients. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Oct;38(10):1701-8.
    • von Tscharner, V., Goepfert, B., and Nigg, B.M.. Changes in EMG signals for the muscle tibialis anterior while running barefoot or with shoes. J. Biomechanics 36: 1169-1176, 2003.

    • Vibram FiveFingers.com. Manufacturer's site.