In recent years the debate between the use of running shoes or barefoot running has become a prominent issue in our running communities. With the introduction of minimalist shoes including Vibrams and Nike Frees more runners are transitioning away from the bulky, highly cushioned shoe which were promoted to correct improper foot alignment. For years many international atheletes have successfully competed barefoot. The idea of barefoot running was brought to the world stage in the 1960 Olympics by the victorious marathon runner Abebe Bikila. The question still remains however, are minimalist shoes and barefoot running really better?
There is no doubt that running barefoot changes a runner’s gait and running style. Without a highly cushioned heel the runner is forced to point or plantarflex the foot, causing the foot to strike at the mid-foot or forefoot. As a result barefoot runners often have a shorter and quicker stride. Advocates for the barefoot running style claim it is these changes in gait that provide benefit to the runner. Some of these benefits include:
- With the elimination of the heel strike there are reduced impact forces through the lower extremity
- Without a highly cushioned shoe between the foot and the ground the body has a better awareness of the ground – also known as increased proprioception
- Barefoot running promotes strengthening of the intrinsic musculature of the foot
- Without a high impact force there is a reduction of energy loss meaning overall improved energy utilization while running long distances
With these benefits however there are also intrinsic risks associated with barefoot running. These include:
- An increased incidence of stress fractures with an uncushioned foot, especially in athletes who are transitioning into barefoot running
- Surface hazards including rocks, glass, temperature extremes, as well as exposure to possible micro-organisms and infectious agents
- Forefoot strike causes an increased load/demand on the calf muscles which may be associated with achilles tendon injury
The evidence is conflicting as to whether barefoot or shod running is best, with strong advocates for both forms of running. Our physiotherapists agree that everyone is unique and a recommendation for or against barefoot running should be made on a case by case basis.
Regardless, if you are considering transitioning into barefoot or minimalist running a slow transition is important to reduce the risk of injury. Whenever you are considering changing any variable related to your running, your body needs to adapt and this requires a slow, gradual transition period. If you are interested in transitioning into barefoot running we recommend booking a consultation with one of our knowledgeable physiotherapists who can review your running style and recommend a strengthening program to promote your safe transition into barefoot running. Your physiotherapist will give you advice on a safe transition and can also provide you with graduated running programs to help you transition. Contact us today to book your initial consultation.
Check out the following video to hear the Barefoot Professor, Daniel Lieberman, discuss his research on how barefoot runners generate less impact shock than runners in traditional sport shoes.