The trend toward the natural and the minimal is just about everywhere today, even in sports. Although the concept is as old as mankind, barefoot running, versus running in standard athletic shoes, is attracting increasing attention from runners and sparking a debate among those in the health care community.
Barefoot running may mean just that for some sprinters—running without any kind of shoe—but more likely, it’s running in very minimalist footwear. Barefoot running, of course, is very different from running in traditional running shoes. This is because the biomechanics of running are altered when shoes are worn, says David Ward, D.C., Director of Chiropractic Sports Performance at Life University.
“When humans run without shoes, the forefoot hits the ground with the most force,” he explains. Running in padded shoes alters this natural mechanical process. “When shoes are worn,” he continues, “they allow more force to be placed on the heel and the area toward the back of the foot.”
Human feet, he observes, are naturally designed to be in contact with the earth—but not in contact with the hard, flat, man-made asphalt and concrete surfaces on which most runners run. “The mechanoreceptors in the feet work to accommodate varying terrain,” he explains. “But once we started wearing shoes, we lost that ability. So, in a sense, wearing shoes made our feet dysfunctional.”
Proponents of the barefoot running movement argue it’s healthier for the feet and reduces the risk of chronic injuries, especially repetitive stress injuries resulting from the heel being pounded in padded running shoes. However, Ward notes that, “there are no conclusive studies that show fewer injuries result from barefoot running.”
The best-known study to date was conducted by Daniel E. Lieberman, Ph.D., professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and a runner himself, who co-authored an article in Nature early last year. The article drew attention to the fact that people have been running barefoot for thousands of years, and the modern running shoe wasn’t invented until the 1970s.
Lieberman and his co-authors’ concluded that people who run barefoot or in minimal footwear, especially those who’ve been barefoot runners for their entire lives, are more likely to strike the ground with the forefoot first. This action creates an impact that’s smaller and which begins later in the gait cycle than is the case for runners wearing cushioned shoes.
“There’s no question that, in principle, these things are true,” says certified sports chiropractor Scott Bautch, D.C. and CEO of Allied Chiropractic Health Centers, a Wisconsin-based chiropractic corporation consisting of more than 50 clinics. “They’re true for people who’ve been going barefoot their entire lives. But here in the Western world, we’ve been wearing shoes for centuries; as a result, our feet have changed drastically, and that’s something we can’t suddenly reverse. In the days when nobody wore shoes, nobody had the foot problems that we do today—plantar faschiitis and bunions, for example.”
Although the American Chiropractic Association doesn’t currently make a recommendation on the issue, Angela Berard with the American Podiatric Medical Association admits most of the support for barefoot running is unsubstantiated. “While anecdotal evidence and testimonials are proliferating on the Internet and in the media about the possible health benefits of running barefoot,” she says, “research hasn’t adequately shed light on the immediate and longterm benefits of this practice.”
And in the same sense, supporters of the barefoot running movement point out that very little scientific data exists indicating or evaluating health benefits for those wearing supportive footwear. More scientific data will have to be gathered in either case.
Over the past few years, a number of minimalist footwear products have begun to saturate the market. Vibram, with its FiveFingers shoe, was the first to market a minimalist shoe, and its Bikila (named after runner Abebe Bikila), with pockets for toes similar to a glove for the hand, is quickly on its way to becoming the iconic minimalist shoe. Also, numerous other manufacturers have launched their own product lines offering protection without extra support, much padding or thick soles.
These shoes give runners the feeling of walking or running barefoot because, in them, they’re taking shorter, lighter steps, pushing their stride forward, instead of running heel to toe. Forefoot strikers are believed to suffer fewer injuries than heel strikers. “The ball of the foot is a natural shock absorber,” Ward notes.
With such a variety of shoes available for the minimalist mindset, there is some middle ground when it comes to support options. For the runner who may want to dabble in barefoot running while still maintaining some traditional support, companies like Spenco—a manufacturer of insole and footcare products—produce ultra-thin insoles for athletic shoes that don’t normally have room for an insole and typically don’t provide extra support.
While the vast majority of competitive runners run in shoes, there’s a minority of successful runners choosing to run shoeless.
Among the best-known are Kenya’s Tegla Loroupe and South Africa’s Zola Budd, who set a track world record in 1984 when she was only 16 years old. Another Kenyan, Geoffrey Mutai, ran the fastest 26.2 miles in history to win the Boston Marathon in April—wearing a lightweight, but not minimalist, shoe—the Adidas Adizero Adios.
Perhaps the greatest of these athletes, though, is Ethiopia’s Bikila, who, incidentally, gave up his barefoot style after winning an Olympic medal in Rome in 1960 and setting a world record. He then won wearing Pumas in the Tokyo Olympic Marathon in 1964, setting another world record. Running barefoot, then, clearly isn’t anything new to the world of competitive running. “For more than 30 years, running barefoot has been a part of professional training,” says Ward. “In order to improve the muscles in the feet, these professional runners will run about one to two weeks barefoot on grass.”
People in many places in the world today still, of course, run without shoes or in very thin-soled shoes such as moccasins and sandals. The most highly publicized of these people are the Tarahumara of northern Mexico, who were the focus of Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen. The Tarahumara, McDougall discovered, run what might be called “extreme” marathons across mountainous terrain wearing lace-up-style sandals—and, reportedly, with few injuries.
“This is not, however, taking into consideration the long-term effects,” explains Jeff Miller, D.C., a Roanoke, Va.-based chiropractor and educational consultant for FootLevelers, which manufactures custom orthotics. Miller proposes that such footwear might simply be a passing fad adopted by a younger generation of runners—one that may adversely affect them in the long run, especially if they have spent years training with arch support.”
Even given that Miller may be slightly biased in favor of supportive footwear, it’s clear that there’s very little documented scientific data to turn to on this matter. So what advice should be offered to runners considering going au naturel? Bautch and Miller recommend a thorough exam of the feet and lower extremities to determine their health and integrity. “Next, there would have to be a planned transition to barefoot running,” Bautch adds. “For anyone over the age of 25, however— even those who have very good mechanics—I think they’ve just been accustomed to shoes with support for too long.”
If runners are considering the move to barefoot running, Ward suggests they transition gradually. “I recommend about 30 minutes a week, initially, on grass, without shoes for about a month, and then gradually add other surfaces to the running course,” he says. “What any runner also needs to think about is the potential for foot injuries, such as wounds and cuts, from the various types of debris found on roadways and even on natural surfaces such as grass.”
So should shoes be dropped, cold-turkey? Ultimately, the responsibility rests with the runner (and a health care professional) to listen to their body and decide whether or not this style of running is best for them. In either case, happy trails.