Putting Your Best Foot Forward – Why You Should Try Barefoot Running
It is the controversial style of exercise that has received both criticism and praise from various experts and sporting enthusiasts.
While it may seem like a new craze, barefoot running has been around for millions of years and was the natural and most common way to run prior to the development of modern sporting shoes in the 1900s.
Barefoot running is still widely practiced in some parts of the world such as Kenya.
With running becoming increasingly popular over time due to its beneficial effects on cardiovascular health, bone mass and even mood, we explain why it's time to ditch your shoes and give barefoot running a try!
The Pros and Cons of Barefoot Running
Despite the numerous benefits of running, it is still one of the most injurious sports with up to 79% of runners experiencing injuries each year.
Injury is most likely to occur at the moment the foot hits the ground as a large amount of kinetic force is applied to the area of the foot that collides with the ground.
Shod runners (wearing shoes) often land on their heels which is called rear-foot striking. This has been likened to being hit on the heel with a hammer using up to 3 times your body weight with each step!
Cushioned running shoes have been shown to reduce this impact force by around 10% and help to spread the force to a greater area of the foot to reduce this intense pressure on the heel.
Barefoot runners on the other hand tend to land in a mid or fore-foot strike on the flat or lateral ball of the foot. They also often have a shorter stride length and a more 'springy' step which results in a less forceful impact when hitting the ground.
Researchers hypothesise that this style of running may therefore lead to lower rates of injuries such as stress fractures, plantar fasciitis and knee problems commonly experienced in runners wearing running footwear.
Advocates of barefoot running report a range of other advantages from this style of exercise including an increased sense of balance, improved gait, heightened sensory perception and a greater sense of connectedness with the environment.
A number of studies have shown that running barefoot either on a treadmill or overground also requires less oxygen than running shod. This equates to a decreased sense of effort while running and possible increases in running speed.
From an evolutionary perspective, homo sapiens have evolved to run effectively with strong foot arches and long spring-like tendons connected to short muscles in the legs to generate force.
Some experts believe that using external cushioning in the form of runners and arch supports may further weaken muscles in the feet and legs rather than strengthen them as barefoot running is proposed to do.
The Latest Research
Professor Lieberman from the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University has taken a keen interest in researching the biomechanics of barefoot running. Some of his researched is summarised in the clip below.
While researchers from both sides of the fence agree further research into barefoot running is necessary, it does appear to have many potential physiological and performance benefits in comparison to shod running.
Barefoot Running Shoes – Worthwhile or Waste of Time?
Minimal or 'barefoot' running shoes are now flooding the sportswear market to keep up with the increased demand from barefoot runners.
These shoes are typically made from thin rubber soles and offer more protection for your feet while facilitating a natural mid or fore-foot strike for the same benefits as barefoot running.
Minimal shoes are not necessary for barefoot running but may be useful during the transition period between shod and barefoot running as well as in more rugged running conditions where the feet require some extra protection, during Winter, etc.
How To Get Started
Please note- this is a general guide only, advice may vary for individuals based on different health requirements, levels of fitness and running experience.
As barefoot running requires extra strength in the calf muscles and the use of muscles in the arch of the foot that are probably quite weak, it is essential to start off slow. If you have always run with a heel-strike style, it will take some time and work for your muscles to acclimatise to mid or forefoot striking.
The basic technique for barefoot running is to have a medium stride not too far in front of the hips and a gentle and relaxed landing, typically on the ball of the foot on the lateral (outside) side of the foot with the heel being let down gradually.
- Start off walking barefoot as much as possible for a week or two.
- In the first week of barefoot running, do not exceed 1 – 1.5 km every second day.
- Increase your barefoot running distance by no more than 10% per week. If you are suffering muscle soreness due to increased distance, stop for a couple of days and allow your muscles to recover.
- Ensure you stretch your calves and hamstrings thoroughly as you start transitioning to barefoot running
- If you have any joint, bone or soft-tissue pain in your feet, arches or legs, stop and allow yourself to recover. You may also need to reassess your technique.
Finally, if you run on a regular basis, you do not need to cut down drastically on your running distance.
Continue to run as you normally would with shoes but supplement some of your running time with barefoot running (in accordance with the guidelines above).
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Hanson, N.J. et al. 2011, Oxygen Cost of Running Barefoot vs. Running Shod, International Journal of Sports Medicine
Lieberman, D.E. et al. Biomechanics of Foot Strikes and Applications to Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear, Harvard University Education