Barefoot Running – passing fad, valuable training tool or the only way to run?
Barefoot running was relatively unheard of until Chris McDougalls book “Born to Run” was published. Since then there has been an exponential increase in the number of runners shedding their shoes and experiencing running without the cushioning and support of shoes. Claims of miraculous cures of long term injuries, regaining the love of running and improved performance have been made from its converts.
The barefoot community is not without it’s critics though. Shoe companies and Podiatrists particularly have been quick to advise that it is not the cure for everything and must be approached with caution.
Understanding a few basic principles will help you decide whether ditching your shoes is a good idea for you.
What does the foot do?
The action of your foot arch collapsing is called pronation, lifting your foot arch back up again is supination. When we land our foot is meant to pronate. It does this to absorb the shock of landing and store energy in the structures of the arch of the foot and Achilles tendon. As we move towards pushing off our arch springs back up (supinating) using the energy it has stored and locks into a stable joint which gives our Achilles tendon and calf muscles a stable base from which to work as we push off the ground. The action of pronating and then supinating is critical to the function of the foot. Problems occur when we do either too much or not enough.
Your feet are also very dense with nerve endings and provide the brain with a large amount of information about what is happening to it when it hits the ground. This then allows the brain to give precise instructions to the other muscles in the body optimising movement. Think about how it feels walking in ski boots – your feet get very little feedback through the boot and therefore you are much less stable as the brain is unsure what is happening. What happens in your feet greatly affects what happens in your knees hips and even lower back. Many knee and hip problems have their origin in the foot.
What controls how much pronation and supination occurs at the foot?
There is an ideal structure to the foot. With this foot type the muscles supporting the foot have the optimal lengths and positions to control the pronation and supination of the foot. Some of us are lucky enough to have an ideal foot, unfortunately many of us aren’t.
Those that aren’t fall into two categories. Feet with a bony structural abnormality and feet that are affected by weak or tight muscles. Since you cant change your bone structure those with this problem will always have to compensate for that. Those with muscular problems may be able to train their muscles to restore proper foot function over time.
How does this relate to running barefoot?
If you have a normal foot then running barefoot will come relatively easy for you and as long as you slowly increase your mileage you should be able to handle it with few problems. Those with muscular problems should be able to run barefoot but will take a lot longer to adapt to it as the body needs time to strengthen the necessary muscles to cope with increased demand on them. Those with bony abnormalities will struggle to run barefoot but given time may be able to partially adapt.
How well your feet can adapt depends on how big the abnormality is and how much demand you place on your feet. If you have a small abnormality and you run 20 miles a week you may adapt quite well, if you have a large abnormality and run 100 miles a week you may never develop sufficient strength to compensate.
What are the benefits of barefoot running?
Barefoot means the foot gains more feedback from the ground which gives the brain more information from which it can determine the muscle activation at the knee and hip joints. This can improve performance and reduce injuries.
Barefoot runners gravitate to a mid to forefoot landing with the foot landing under the pelvis. Whilst there is debate over whether a mid to forefoot or heel strike landing is more effective there is no debate on the fact the foot should land under your pelvis.
Barefoot running improves the flexibility and strength of the foot and ankle muscles. With no support or heel lift from a shoe the muscles of the foot have to go through more of a stretch every time the foot lands and have to work harder to stabilise the foot.
The question is does any of this improve performance or decrease the risk of injury? In the next few years we should start to see some detail research to confirm or deny this but at the moment we don’t know. The initial studies are far from conclusive and both the barefoot and the running shoe groups are claiming it helps support their case.
What are the potential dangers in running barefoot?
If you change anything about the way you run without giving your body time to adapt you run a high risk of suffering an injury. Most of us need to wear in a new pair of shoes, this applies even more so with barefoot, if you do to much too soon you will become injured often trading one set of injuries with another.
The obvious dangers of running barefoot on broken glass etc can be overcome by wearing vibram five fingers or similar. Many people are concerned with running on concrete and you are likely to cause yourself an injury unless you give your body time to build up the natural cushioning in your feet first. Your body has fat pads under your feet specifically designed to cushion the blow of landing but when we wear shoes these pads reduce so you need to give it time to build back up first. Running on dirt paths or grass first before trying concrete gives the foot a chance to adapt.
If you have a bony abnormality it will take a long time for your foot to adapt and it may not be able to adapt well enough to run the mileages you want to run.
Why should I bother at all if there’s no conclusive evidence to support barefoot running?
If you are running such that your foot lands under your pelvis, you rarely suffer injuries and you can wear lightweight racing shoes then you probably don’t have that much to gain. Most of us don’t fall into that category. If by adding one barefoot run a week or doing your warm ups in barefoot you can gain greater foot stability and strength which may allow you to race in lightweight shoes then it could make a big difference. Normal shoes weigh around 350grams so if you run for an hour taking 90 strides per minute it means each leg ends up lifting 1890kg! If you can wear a lightweight racing shoe that weighs 250g then you’ll end up carrying 500kg less.
If running barefoot changes you from a heel striker that lands with your foot forward of your pelvis to someone who lands with foot under your pelvis then you will certainly see an improvement in your times.
How do I know if I have a normal foot , a weak foot or one with a bony abnormality?
If you have a moderate foot arch, wear neutral shoes and suffer very few injuries then your foot structure is probably pretty good. If you have very low arches or high arches then you body has to compensate which can cause injuries. Determining if it is a bony abnormality or a muscle weakness is not easy and involves a detailed foot assessment but in either case you will need to approach barefoot running with caution and slowly build the mileage up.
Can everyone run barefoot?
Certain foot types will have a much harder job coping with the demands of barefoot. For example If your foot pronates excessively then this will place more load on the muscles that are attempting to control the pronation compared to a well functioning foot. Can the muscles adapt eventually? Is it too late after 20+ years of wearing shoes to retrain the foot to cope with running barefoot? If the same person had never worn shoes would they be able to cope with barefoot running?
All of these are unanswered at the moment. It would be interesting to have a look at the feet of people who have been barefoot all their lives compared to those who wear shoes. You cant change what you are born with but if we never wore shoes would our feet adapt. It makes sense that the majority would have to adapt to some degree. The question for those who have worn shoes is, is it too late for some feet to adapt? Hopefully more research will start to give us some answers.
What should you do?
My personal opinion is that barefoot running should be treated as another way of training, just like speed sessions, long slow runs, etc. Use it to improve technique and strengthen the feet and progress very slowly. If you find that you adapt quite quickly then you may consider doing more of your runs barefoot. If you find it is taking a while to get used to then proceed with caution and restrict running barefoot to 1-2 times per week. A recovery run or warm up is the ideal time to run barefoot.
As you adapt to running barefoot you may have a wider range of choice of shoes. If you can handle barefoot then you wont need highly supportive, cushioned running shoes. You can base your running shoe choice on other factors like weight, tread or even looks!