Barefoot running…to wear shoes or not?

Here is a guest post from my friend and colleague, Jill Bruyere, running coach extraordinaire! You can read more about Jill below.

Enjoy...

Barefoot running has become a popular topic among runners in the last two years.  No doubt the attention of barefoot running has been inspired by the popularity of the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougal.  For decades, there has been a grass-roots movement for extremely minimalist, i.e., barefoot, running. But only in the past few years have companies begun to get in on the act, too. They now offer stripped-down models that do not have the padding and structural elements that characterize conventional running shoes.

The question is does barefoot running really offer an advantage over shoes?  Bare footers will argue that modern running shoes promote a heel-first stride that makes a runner more vulnerable to injuries.  Other research suggests that heavily cushioned shoes actually prevent your foot from sensing the ground and can make you stomp down harder than if you didn’t have all that padding.

So, why would you encourage your clients to run barefoot?  The biggest reason why barefoot running has become popular is because it claims to reduce running injuries and improve foot biomechanics.  What’s the evidence behind this notion? And should a person try it? There isn’t strong evidence that barefoot running is any better or worse than running with more structured shoes, in part because there aren’t enough regular barefoot runners with whom to compare users of running shoes. But there’s a lack of a solid evidence base for running footwear in general.

However, many who have switched over to barefoot running claim it has reduced or negated their running injuries.

Lets back up and talk about why running injuries happen in the first place.  It has a lot to do with how the foot strikes the pavement when running. An ideal foot strike is one where the mid foot strikes the ground first and then slowly rolls onto the heel. However, most runners strike heel first and that puts a ton of added pressure and impact on the legs which can lead to a host of running injuries.  But, until more research is available, it's hard to say if shoes are helpful or harmful. But here are the pros and cons that are often discussed when it comes to barefoot running.

Potential Benefits of Barefoot Running

Barefoot running helps to correct the foot strike on the ground forcing the runner to hit the pavement, mid foot first. This helps develop a more natural gait and strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the foot.   Furthermore, the foot has a wonderful feedback mechanism: when you’ve worked it out enough for one day, it tells you quickly! Your arches will be sore, your foot will be raw from pavement, or you’ll get the dreaded top of the foot pain. When you run barefoot, your body precisely engages your vision, your brain, the soles of your feet, and all the muscles, bones, tendons, and supporting structures of your feet and legs. If you do anything wrong, the foot will tell you.  The foot is the great disciplinarian.  You can’t over-pronate, can’t over-train, and can’t over-stride when barefoot running.

So, when wearing shoes, a runner is more likely to use an undesirable foot strike motion due to the majority of the padding placed in the rear of the foot.  This causes a runner to more likely strike heel first, an undesirable and injury prone running motion.  Furthermore, the argument is wearing shoes can cause the small muscles in our feet to weaken and the tendons, ligaments and natural arches to stop doing their job. It is believed that the result of supportive shoe inserts, orthotics and extra cushioning is poor foot biomechanics and increased risk of foot, leg and knee injuries.

Potential Harms of Barefoot Running

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.

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.  Most of us are not used to going barefoot, so a minimalist shoes or bare foot will cause the muscles to initially feel overworked.  In some, this can lead to injuries such as Achilles tendinitis or calf strain.  Lastly, the bottom of the foot for most people is soft and tender.  Going without a stiff-soled shoe may initially cause plantar pain and blisters.

So, to go barefoot or not?  It is a very individual thing which some people can be very successful with, and others cannot. I have coached many who simply cannot make the transition for one reason or another, and I don’t think there is any reason to force them to.  It goes back to the old saying of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” If you have no problems and no pain, do you really need to change anything?

If you or your client decide to give barefoot a try, my advice is to start very slow, expect significant calf strain after even your first day of half mile or mile. Suddenly going barefoot or wearing a minimal shoe can be quite a shock to the foot and require a slow adaptation phase. Start off slowly and stop if it doesn’t feel right, since you are probably used to wearing regular shoes.  A great way to learn and adapt your feet is to try it first barefoot on a hard but smooth surface like a tennis court, a track or a grassy field. Your body will quickly tell you what to do.  Listen to your body.  In the end, the ultimate experts on footwear are you and your body.

For those of you who want to make the barefoot leap and try it out yourself, check out the below list of barefoot gear. Remember, you don’t have to go entirely barefoot. There is a growing list of minimalist running options. The list below is ideal for those that want to strip off traditional running shoes but not go entirely shoeless:

Vibram Five Fingers are the most popular barefoot shoe and are really starting to take off amongst the minimalist culture.

Huarache running sandals are also very popular and inspired by tribesman from around the world.

The Nike Free is Nike’s response to the barefoot running phenomenon.

Jill Bruyere

Jill Bruyere has been coaching runners for over 11 years. She is an ACSM certified trainer and coach based in Seattle, Washington.  Jill trains clients in her area through her own running business, Run with Jill Bootcamp.  She trains clients for all distances of running from the 5k to marathon distance.  She created and sells two marathon training programs and has successfully helped many people from all over the world complete a successful marathon race.   Her training program and blog can be found online: http://www.runwithjill.com

 

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