Is Barefoot Running Bad or Good for You?:A HealthCentral Explainer
Barefoot running has come back in to fashion in recent years and with that have come conflicting opinions and information about the benefits and drawbacks of what’s also known as “natural running.”
Here we set the facts straight.
How did barefoot running come about?
Barefoot running first began to gain attention in 1960, when a then-unknown Ethiopian runner named Abebe Bikila shocked his competitors by winning the Olympic Marathon in Rome with the world-record time of 2:15:16.2—while not wearing shoes. Bikila is one of many who have set records in both short and long distances—from track to roads and trails—while running barefoot. Charlie “Doc” Robbins is known for completing 50 straight Thanksgiving Day Road Races in Manchester, Connecticut while running shoeless, unless the temperature dropped below 20 degrees, in which case he wore socks. Zola Budd, who mainly trained and raced barefoot, has broken track world records and competed in the Olympics.
More recently, the running community’s interest in barefoot running took off when runner and writer Christopher McDougall published the book Born to Run in 2009. McDougall described the story of Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians, who run barefoot through difficult terrain in minimal sandals called huaraches. McDougall’s account sparked controversy over whether barefoot running can actually help improve performance or even prevent injuries.
Are there benefits to barefoot running?
Conventional running shoes often have cushioning and stability features such as more padding on the heel of the shoe. As a result of wearing such shoes, many runners end up landing on the heel of their feet with each stride. Barefoot running advocates argue that barefoot running teaches runners to run more naturally and get used to landing on the mid-foot or fore-foot. They say that results in greater efficiency and allows the arches of the feet to act as natural shock absorbers, rather than relying on the cushioning of a shoe.
The other main argument for barefoot running is that it may help prevent injuries. Proponents say that by removing the heel cushioning found in most shoes, the Achilles tendon and calf muscle are allowed to lengthen, which may prevent injuries such as calf pulls or Achillies tendinitis that are caused by short, tight tissues. Advocates say that barefoot running is the correct way to run, meaning that runners land close to their mid-foot and use power in their toes to push off. This “correct” way to run is prevented when traditional shoes are worn, which leads to weakened feet and possible injuries, advocates say.
Multiple barefoot running shoe companies have been created in recent years to cater to the growing interest in the potential benefits of minimal running. Vibram FiveFingers, for example, encourages forefoot striking. On its website, it says, “This style of running may be safer and lead to fewer injuries, in addition to being biomechanically more sound from an energy and force distribution standpoint. Basically, it is a smarter way to ambulate.” Vivobarefoot claims that wearing orthotics can be detrimental to foot strength and health. “We recommend a gradual transition back to barefoot walking leading to stronger and healthier feet. If you are in any doubt or have any serious medical conditions, please consult a specialist,” they say. Xero Shoes doesn’t just create barefoot running shoes—they make barefoot running sandals. Running in their sandals, they claim, gives runners an opportunity to find a cure for common running ailments. They say, “If you are willing to listen to (that) feedback and use it as an opportunity to change the way you run, to adjust your stride, to find a way to move that doesn’t hurt, then there’s a good chance any problems you had that were caused by bad form sure might clear up.”
Here are some other potential benefits of barefoot running:
- Improve balance and proprioception
- Increase speed
- Increase flexibility and elasticity in feet
- Improve muscle function
What are the dangers of barefoot running?
Then there are the arguments against barefoot running. Some opponents say that running in minimalist shoes can actually increase existing injuries such as Achilles tendinitis and calf strains. People who are used to shoes with a lot of cushioning may especially be at risk of experiencing shocked or overworked muscles. Additionally, people who experience plantar pain (pain on the bottom of the feet) often need to run in stiff-soled shoes, and switching to a barefoot shoe may increase risk of plantar fasciitis. Other drawbacks of barefoot shoes include limited protection from road debris and sharp objects and little protection from cold weather and frostbite.
Recent studies have further disputed the potential benefits of barefoot running. This month, the company Vibram FiveFingers announced it would offer refunds to buyers to settle a class-action lawsuit that said its health benefit claims went too far. The lawsuit said that Vibram misrepresented health research to advertise its product. In June 2013, The New York Times published the article, ‘Is Barefoot-Style Running Best? New Studies Cast Doubt’, in which reporter Gretchen Reynolds discussed the findings of various studies published in reputable science journals. Among Reynolds’ main points were as follows:
- Heel-striking is a more physiologically economical running form than is mid- or fore-foot striking, according to multiple studies published in The Journal of Applied Physiology; more specifically, the studies found that heel strikers used less oxygen to run at the same pace as did fore-foot strikers.
- People who run with a fore-foot pattern are more likely to face abrupt fatigue—also known as “hitting the wall”—than are people who land on the rear-foot.
- Five separate studies presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the American College of Sports medicine concluded that switching from traditional to minimalist shoes results in no significant benefits.
- Evidence does not point to barefoot running leading to stronger feet and fewer injuries, according to researchers at Brigham Young University.
- A survey of 566 runners found that almost a third of those who had tried minimalist shoes experienced new injuries after switching to the new footwear.
So what is the conclusion?
With drastically conflicting arguments regarding barefoot running and with health and potential injuries at stake, it can be confusing and difficult for runners to decide whether they are better off wearing traditional or minimalist shoes. Even though there are numerous consumer reports on whether barefoot running helps or hurts runners, it is important to reach a conclusion based on objectivity and where the weight of evidence lies. The problem is that evidence is not yet conclusive. The only sure thing is that what seems to work for some runners does not work for others, for reasons which studies have thus far been unable to pinpoint. Some experts suggest that people who switch from traditional to minimalist shoes can successfully do so only by following certain barefoot running guidelines, such as transitioning slowly and gradually over time. However, it is clear that barefoot running does not seem to be beneficial for everyone, given the complexities of the biomechanics of running, in addition to negative consumer reviews. According to many experts, the best course of action for runners is to run the way that is most natural-feeling and comfortable to them and to buy the most appropriate running shoes accordingly, based on the recommendation of another runner’s expertise.