The pros and cons of barefoot running

The pros and cons of barefoot running

The debate about the pros and cons of barefoot running reached the headlines once again this week as a new study published in Gait and Posture suggests that the way you run is more important than what you wear on your feet.

Ever since Christopher McDougall captured the imagination of runners everywhere with his book “Born to run” in 2009, barefoot running has been a hotly debated topic. In his book, McDougall draws on an extensive study of the Tarahumara Indians, an isolated tribe in Mexico whose members are remarkable for their ability to run hundreds of miles without fatigue or injury. He argues that humans are built to run, and to run barefoot.

Since the publication of this book, barefoot running seems to be everywhere. Once considered a fad or specific to particular cultures, it is becoming more and more mainstream. Sportswear companies have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, which means that “barefoot” running doesn't necessarily mean not wearing any shoes. Ultra light barefoot running shoes such as the Nike Free, Vivobarefoot and Vibram Fivefingers offer some protection to runners' feet without the bulk and cushioning of traditional running shoes.

Why run barefoot?

The basic argument of McDougall's book is captured in his title – as humans, we are born to run. It is our evolutionary birthright and we have been doing it for millenia without shoes. Traditional running shoes, the argument goes, are at best not helpful, and at worst actively harmful. In fact, there is not a single study published to show that shoes reduce risk of injury. Running barefoot prevents injury and is the most natural way to run.

There is considerable evidence to back up this view. Daniel Lieberman and his colleagues at the Harvard University “Skeletal Biology Lab” have published extensive studies to explain how and why humans can run comfortably without running shoes. They argue that it's all about running technique, particularly how you land (known as the foot striking pattern). People who are used to running barefoot tend to land with a flat foot (“midfoot strike”) or on the ball of the foot (“forefoot strike”), whereas runners in traditional running shoes land with their heel first (“heel strike”).

This difference in running styles appears to be at the heart of barefoot running. With a forefoot or midfoot strike, the running movement is light and springy. With a heel strike, every step involves a forceful collision with the ground, so that bones and joints are jarred. This, it is argued, is how running injuries occur. Adopt the lighter, more springy step of barefoot running, and you'll avoid these injuries.

But it's not that simple

Of course there is a “but,” otherwise we'd all be running barefoot by now. And that “but” is largely about technique.

If you're used to running shoes and you suddenly make the transition to running barefoot, chances are you will spend at least some time continuing with the old heel strike pattern. But now you're doing it entirely without cushioning. Ouch.

Fortunately, humans are generally quick learners and research findings suggest that we naturally adapt our gait when we make the transition to running barefoot, developing the favoured middfoot or forefoot strike. BUT this takes time. It takes time because we're transferring the impact and loading to posterior muscles that are just not used to doing this kind of work. There is particular strain on the calf muscles and Achilles tendons, so these need to be strengthened gradually.

Recent findings

The study that has been in the news recently basically illustrates the importance of gait over the presence or absence of shoes. Yo Shih and colleagues at National Taiwan Normal University studied habitually shod runners under four conditions: barefoot running with a forefoot strike, barefoot running with a heel strike, shod running with a forefoot strike and shod running with a heel strike. They collected data on gait, muscle activity, and the likely impact on running injuries. The main finding was that runners can effect greater shock absorption by changing their foot strike pattern than whether or not they wear shoes.

To shoe or not to shoe? That is NOT the question!

More and more evidence is accumulating to suggest that running technique is much more important than footwear. Of course the two influence each other, in that barefoot running seems to encourage a more favourable foot strike pattern in some people. But this doesn't happen automatically and it doesn't happen for everyone. If you're considering barefoot running, it's worth investing in some expert coaching to make sure that your technique is right.

Ben Le Vesconte, an instructor at the Vivobarefoot running clinic in London, has come up with a striking analogy: “If you're banging your head against a wall, you can tie a pillow to your head and it will help. But it's better to stop banging your head.”

Over to you. What experience have you had of barefoot running? How easy or difficult has it been to adjust your foot strike pattern? Do you have any top tips to offer?

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