Want to know the truth about barefoot running? Well, Barefoot running may soon be added to the list of exercise fads that are designed to make shoe companies money, while providing false hope to the consumer. While barefoot running may indeed change your running mechanics, the questionable benefit of differing mechanics may not be worth the risk of injury. In review of many studies and expert opinions, barefoot running may be best reserved for top-level competitive athletes.

History of Running Mechanics

The selling point for barefoot running shoes is a good one, and makes sense from a historical perspective. According to the journal Nature, bipedalism, or walking on two feet, has been the norm for millions of years. Evolution has designed our feet and legs to be able to withstand the forces of walking and running. Only since the 1970s have running shoes become popular, and since then, advancements have been made in cushioning and sole design to provide more comfort. For the most part, each individual human has worn shoes, whether sandals or Nike’s best, for the majority of life. If this is the case, the question to ask is: whether evolution’s design is more important than the adaptations that can happen since you have been wearing shoes in your lifetime?

Difference in Running Mechanics, Barefoot Running Benefits

Because we have worn shoes for many years, our running mechanics have changed to accommodate running in shoes. Specifically, shod running (shoe running) causes runners to run heel first, instead of forefoot first, which is seen in barefoot runners. Heel running occurs because most of the cushioning in the shoe is under the heel, which makes running more comfortable and provides increased stability, according to Nature. In contrast, barefoot runners tend to run with a forefoot or mid-foot strike because natural heel cushioning is poor, and forefoot running may be more energy efficient. In addition, forefoot running has a less blunt impact than heel running and offers a “smoother run.” Overall, there are notable differences in running mechanics between barefoot and shod running, but the benefits of one style may not outweigh the other.

The Risks With Barefoot Running

The rate of running injuries, ranging from 19% to 79%, is primarily responsible for initiating the barefoot running craze. The thought being that a change in running mechanics can be beneficial. Although there may be advantages to forefoot running, a 2011 article in the Canadian Medical Journal states that

many podiatrists, note that there is no scientific evidence that indicates running barefoot is better than running in shoes, and say that even if running barefoot reduces some types of injuries (such as a heel stress fracture) it may cause other types of harm, such as puncture wounds on the soles and stress fractures in the metatarsals.

Therefore, although barefoot running changes running mechanics, it does not mean that these changes are beneficial.

Dr. Kevin Kirby, an adjunct professor at the California School of Podiatric Medicine in Oakland, has 25 years experience as a sports podiatrist, and is not convinced that barefoot running is a good move to make. He states

There is not a shred of research that indicates barefoot running or running in minimalist shoes reduces injuries… There is also no research that indicates running shoes reduce injuries. It’s a wash as far as research is concerned.

A respected statement from Dr. Kirby, an experienced runner who has posted competitive scores in dozens of marathons. He adds that experienced runners may benefit from incorporating barefoot running into their training program, but beginner and intermediate runners are probably best to sticking with well-cushioned running shoes.

Recommendations

The niche’ of barefoot running is best left for top-level athletes to incorporate into a training program. Beginner and intermediate level runners must weigh the benefits versus the risks in choosing to run in barefoot shoes over cushioned running shoes. Most importantly, noting the increased risk of barefoot runningoutdoors and that changing mechanics may cause injury. If you choose barefoot running, you must make the transition over a period of weeks to avoid strains, sprains or an increased risk of foot fracture.

Reference

Nature; “Biomechanics: Barefoot running strikes back.”; W., Jungers; January 2010.

Canadian Medical Association Journal; “The Rise of Barefoot Running.”; R. Collier; January 2011.