From gel cushions to stabilizing insoles and everything in between, today’s runners are bombarded with footwear options (pimp-my-sneakers anyone?). But a few radical runners are going rogue by foregoing fancy and wearing minimalist shoes — if any at all. While running barefoot and running in minimalist shoes are markedly different experiences, barefoot proponents argue both options tend to create a more natural, efficient movement while reducing the overall chance of injury Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Lieberman, DE., Venkadesan, M., Werbel, WA., et al. Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nature, 2010 Jan 28;463(7280):531-5. . But use caution before going the distance like a caveman, as transitioning to barefoot style running could actually create more injuries than it prevents Barefoot-simulating footwear associated with metatarsal stress injury in 2 runners. Giuliani J, Masini B, Alitz C, et al. Keller Army Hospital, West Point, New York, USA. Orthopedics. 2011 Jul 7;34(7):e320-3 .
Less Is More — Why It Matters
The sneaker industry has created a generation of heel striking runners thanks to their shoes’ extra cushiony support in that area Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Lieberman, DE., Venkadesan, M., Werbel, WA., et al. Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nature, 2010 Jan 28;463(7280):531-5. . But that’s not necessarily how humans (Springsteen included) were "Born to Run," and sneakers make some run with greater than natural force on the heel. And when runners land hard on their heels, impact that’s not absorbed in the cushioning goes up the leg and into joints in the ankles, knees, and hips. Much of the argument supporting barefoot style running rests on the theory that runners will transition to a more biomechanically-efficient forefoot strike in which the leg muscles absorb the majority of shock. Harvard’s "Barefoot Professor” Daniel Lieberman hypothesizes that by landing on the front of the foot, barefoot runners may even be less susceptible to repetitive stress injuries like shin splints.
Barefoot running might sound ideal, but many of us don’t have the luxury of running through pristine, grassy fields. So while some practice barefoot running in the literal sense (meaning no shoes), others have opted for minimalist shoes that encourage the same motion, such as the Nike Free, Vibram FiveFingers, Reebok RealFlex, and Terra Plana. These minimalist sneakers claim to mimic the effects of barefoot running while incorporating a layer of protection from sharp and potentially bacteria-ridden surfaces.
Baby, We Were Born to Run — The Answer/Debate
But don’t throw out those souped-up kicks just yet, because the arguments for forefoot running aren't universally accepted Barefoot running claims and controversies: a review of the literature. Jenkins DW, Cauthon DJ. Arizona School of Podiatric Medicine, College of Health Sciences, Midwestern University, Glendale, AZ. J Am Podiatric Med Assoc. 2011 May-Jun;101(3):231-46. . Sports podiatrists have reported a greater instance of Achilles tendon injuries in heel strike runners who forced the transition to a forefoot strike. And minimalist or no shoes at all may not be ideal for those with a tendency to under or over-pronate, as many often consciously or unconsciously rely on traditional sneakers’ stability features for support. Before going bare, consider consulting with a podiatrist who can spot any areas for concern.
Set on making the switch? The key is a slow transition. Just as toddlers don’t go from a few steps to a 5K overnight (or most toddlers, anyway), barefoot newbies shouldn’t go from high-tech sneakers to nothing in one fell swoop. Check out one of numerous instructional videos on proper barefoot running form, and read up on some additional tips, like increasing step cadence (and often taking shorter strides), to make the gradual transition as injury-free as possible.
Originally posted on April 21, 2011. Updated August 2011.