If you’re a casual jogger, chances are you don’t spend too much time worrying about your choice of footwear, and just throw on whatever’s lying around. More serious runners will likely have specialist running shoes, with fancy-sounding technology and construction that claims to be tailored to your running style. However, we didn’t always have shoes on our feet, and, in some areas of the world, people still don’t wear them when running. If we evolved to run barefoot, then do running shoes help or hinder performance and health? And should we go back to basics? This article sheds some light on what has become a contentious debate in the industry.
What is Barefoot Running?
Barefoot running, or “natural running” is exactly what it sounds like: running without footwear. Throughout history, until relatively recently, people have run either barefoot or with thin-soled shoes. In fact, in some parts of Africa such as Kenya, people still do so, and Kenyans are among the most successful competitive long-distance runners in history. Many marathon runners have seen success at the Olympics running barefoot, though among recreational runners it has only become more mainstream since the publication of Born To Run (2009) by Christopher McDougall.
Benefits of Barefoot Running
The main reason for choosing to run barefoot is for a more natural gait. With modern footwear, runners tend to land on the heel first, which generates a lot of force compared to barefoot running. Analysis has shown that even on the hardest surfaces, barefoot runners generate smaller collision forces. Here are some reasons you should consider this method:
More natural gait — early humans never had shoes, so our bodies have adapted to running without them. Kenyans and some Mexican tribes still practice barefoot running to great success.
Strength benefits — muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the foot can grow stronger.
Reduced injury risk — landing on the front or midfoot reduces impact, and removing heel cushioning allows the Achilles tendon and calf muscles to stretch properly.
On the flip side, here are some of the negatives of modern, cushioned running shoes:
Unnatural landing — with thickly cushioned heels, modern shoes encourage heel strike, which puts more strain on the body.
Injury risk — the extra “protection” can prevent ankle plantar flexion, which is an important part of the running mechanics. This overcompensation can lead to increased risk of plantar fasciitis, ligament injury, Achilles injury, general ankle pain, and even stress fractures.
Weakened muscles — because of all the support modern footwear gives, the muscles stop having to work as hard, which makes them get weaker and less effective.
Negatives of Barefoot Running
While many converts may swear by a more natural way of moving, that’s not to say there aren’t any potential drawbacks to this method. Here are a few negatives:
Shock to the system — you have to be careful to adapt slowly; otherwise, you may overwork your muscles and run the risk of injury.
Why change a good thing? — if you run well and free of injury with regular running shoes, why risk your health for the sake of it?
Blisters — until your body adapts and you start to form calluses, your feet will no doubt be soft, and blisters are going to be a fact of life for at least a few weeks.
Lack of protection — while your new gait might be better for you, you’re still at risk from glass, rocks or any other debris. Footwear also offers improved grip and keeps out the elements in inclement weather conditions, so you have to be careful where and when you go out sans shoes.
Can I Try It?
Barefoot running probably isn’t for everyone, unfortunately. For instance, you may have various conditions that make it difficult and more painful than usual, such as tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, bunions, hammer toe and more. If so, you should check with a medical professional to see whether or not it’s a good idea. If you get the all-clear, it’s a good idea to start gradually and build up slowly to all-out running with no footwear. Here are a few things to bear in mind:
Ease into things — start by just walking to help toughen up your feet, then run on softer surfaces initially such as sand or grass.
Get your mechanics right — make sure you’re landing on your mid or forefoot rather than your heel, and try not to overstride.
Slowly increase your distances — start off just running a small percentage of your overall mileage barefoot, until you’ve become acclimatized.
Minimalist Running — Happy Medium?
So, with the damage you can do to your feet running barefoot on hard surfaces, coupled with the risk of chronic injuries with padded running shoes, is there any compromise that works out best for health and longevity on the road or the track? Well, many experts now advocate minimalist running shoes, which go back to basics in their construction (not much padding and cushioning) but still offer a degree of protection for your feet. Some people may appreciate this balance, and others might want to stay completely natural, while yet more runners might feel and perform better in more cushioned footwear.
Find Out What Works for You
You have to experience things for yourself to see what works and what doesn’t, unless science can conclusively end this debate one way or another. If you’ve seen success switching to barefoot running or want to try it out, then that’s great. Equally, if you’re performing at a high level and staying injury free with more cushioning on your feet, then perhaps you shouldn’t change just for the sake of it. If you think there’s room for improvement in your performance, or your gait needs work, then barefoot or minimalist running could be a potential solution. Just make sure you ease into things and give yourself the best chance of success.