Barefoot Running: Is It for You?
By Jeff from SLN
From the Running with Sole Blog Series
Have you ever wondered what people were doing before the advent of shoes? How did they get around, strap leaves to their feet? Better yet, how did our hunter-gatherer ancestors fare on foot without some cushion under their heels? Considering our current existence, it stands to reason that they did just fine, and many in the running world are following the trend to ditch traditional running shoes and run by foot, barefoot that is.
Christopher MacDougall’s book Born to Run explains this idea. Humans aren’t the fastest animals in nature, as hard as a sprinter trains and as fast as he becomes, he will never reach the mighty speed of cheetah. But don’t despair - there’s hope for us humans. We do excel at distance running, in fact, we are the best distance runners on the planet. It’s the endurance we have that has allowed humans to stick around all this time. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a cheetah run a marathon…just eat cheese puffs.
What’s the difference?
When someone laces up a pair of running shoes their body automatically adjusts. Instead of their feet striking at the front of the foot as it would if the person were barefoot, when in shoes, they will immediately start to land on their heels. Not everyone is in agreement as to why this is. Some will say that it’s simply a “miracle of the body” changing to match conditions, while others say this is because the cushion is only shielding you from pain that would naturally discourage you from running heel first. It’s also argued that stepping heel-first serves to slow you down and should be avoided.
Is running with shoes bad?
Maybe not. There are people that have never had a problem with running shoes. However, 70% of people who use them do find themselves injured at some point, and this percentage has held steady since running shoes were introduced in the 1970’s. So despite all the innovations in running shoes, they have not decreased the rate of injury.
In addition, the force upon the ground when landing is greater in running shoes. Because the running lands heel first, there is an initial force of 2.5 times the runner’s body weight that disappears when landing barefoot on the fore-foot, according to a study at Harvard in 2010. In fact, the impact force when barefoot is 58% of the person’s body weight instead of 178% in shoes. This means that, compared to running barefoot, running in shoes applies a force 3 times greater!
Should I go barefoot?
Don’t let anyone make your mind up for you, barefoot running may not be for everyone. If you have never had a problem before, do what works. However, if you are willing to give it a shot, keep in mind that it will take adjustment. That same Harvard study found that 83% of people who simply started running barefoot who were used to running shoes still landed heel-first and had an impact force SEVEN TIMES that of someone landing properly on their fore-foot. This kind of force will encourage calf strains and tendonitis.
Someone adjusting to barefoot running will need to slowly build up to a full workout, only running 5 minutes or so without the shoes to begin. This could be done as a warm up. Also, consider shoes with a moderate “heel drop” of 4-5mm for this in-between stage. Runners who are conditioned to run longer distances already should be ESPECIALLY careful, doing so for many miles consistently puts them at them the highest risk of injury when trying to adjust. Listen to what your body tells you!
With all that said: enjoy it! But wash your feet after!
Dugas, Jonathan, PhD, and Ross Tucker, PhD. "The Science of Sport: Barefoot Running, Shoes, and Born to Run." The Science of Sport: Barefoot Running, Shoes, and Born to Run. N.p., 6 June 2011. Web. 08 Feb. 2013.