Barefoot Running – Yes or No?

Running, Barefoot running - yes or no?There has been a long debate about whether barefoot, or minimalist shoe running, is a good thing or harmful.  Some experts say it’s what we should be doing because it’s the way our ancestors got about for 1000s of years, and others are more skeptical.

So what’s the answer?  Interestingly, like so many things, the answer isn’t one OR the other. Here’s why.

Barefoot runners.

You may know of, or remember Zola Budd, the Olympian who set several running records in the 1980s, all running barefoot.  She and enthusiasts like her reasoned that if our ancestors had walked/run barefoot for thousands of years, and many people in the world still do, why were we suddenly wrapping our feet in shoes?  And just look at the injury rates among shoe-wearing runners, they argue.

Well, before we throw the running shoes out with the sports socks, lets look at the pros and cons of both styles.

Barefoot vs shoe-wearing running.

Modern shoe-wearing runners do often suffer with knee pain and other problems, despite the cushioning and support their shoes are supposed to give.

A Harvard paper from 2010 talked about how running shoes’ padded heals give ‘impact transient’ – a sharp force – through the heal as the foot strikes the ground heal first.

Proponents of barefoot running, or running with minimalist footwear say that these sorts of injuries are much lower in their sector.  The Harvard paper said that this is because when a barefoot runner’s foot hits the ground s/he automatically leads with the mid foot or forefoot, therefore distributing the landing forces more evenly.

If you picture this in your mind it makes sense.

However fewer knee and other injuries doesn’t mean that barefoot runners don’t have any injuries at all.  Looking at blogs on barefoot running, there are a lot of complaints about Achilles tendon pain or pain in the feet due to stress fractures.

This is because however the foot lands, there are weight and pressure forces going through it and through the body above it.  That’s biomechanics.

In addition research doesn’t support the idea that a heal-first shoe running style that causes the ‘impact transients’ actually correlates with injury rates.

How athletes really train.

Athletes who have professional track coaches often train in bare feet or using minimalist training footwear.  They do this on grass tracks and not on tarmac.  Even Zola Budd did half treadmil1her training in shoes.

Coaches like this mix of shoe and non-shoe running because it improves the strength and durability of the feet for track and field events.  And after all, variety is a good thing.

Sports scientists and doctors agree that it’s not barefoot or minimalist running itself that’s the problem, but the over-enthusiastic passion that its proponents have for it, that can lead to problems and injury.

So what’s the answer?

Should you take up barefoot running?

We said at the top of the page that one style OR the other isn’t the answer.  Instead, as we can see from the way that coaches train athletes, that some barefoot or minimalist running AND shoe running are the best way to get the most out of your workout and your body.

If you spend a lot of time barefoot as a child then it’s likely that this style of running will come more naturally to you than if you’ve been a shoe-wearing city-dweller all your life.

How to do it:

  • If you have a coach, take his or her advice.
  • Research barefoot running technique.  See YouTube and look for videos that show a toe-heal style (rather than the heal-toe style used in shoe running).  This means that forefoot strikes the ground first.
  • Use barefoot/minimalist running as an add-on to your normal running, not a replacement for it.
  • Start slowly – as a guide increase the minimalist/barefoot portion of your run workout by no more than 10% each week.
  • Keep your barefoot running to natural surfaces like grass.  Tarmac sidewalks/pavements are littered with broken glass, dog poop, stones and other unpleasant things.
  • Research minimalist running footwear.  This type of footwear is a good alternative to barefoot running if you want to use outside terrain such as hills and trails.
  • Stop if you experience pain, especially in areas that you haven’t experienced it before, and seek professional help.
  • When you’re not running, spend time walking about barefoot where you can.
  • More information here: http://barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/5BarefootRunning&TrainingTips.html

Elspeth Raisbeck

Share