Barefoot running has become very popular in recent years and many people started swapping their cushioned impact-reducing trainers for the light and totally unsupportive barefoot sole shoes. What is the rationale behind this change? Is it down to fitness fashion, cleaver marketing or sports science?
Paul Jeremy Jones et al. wrote a fantastic article on the subject. They gathered scientific evidence to show that the type of shoe we’re wearing has little to do with minimizing injury risk. In fact it was shown that people that wear old trainers get fewer injuries than those who use new specially prescribed running shoes. Of course the numerous developments of air and gel based cushioning would make the trainers very comfortable but I was surprised to read that that’s pretty much all there’s to it. I don’t know about you, but when I spend over 100 pounds on a professional kit, I would like to know that it offers a bit more than a fancy design. I would prefer to invest in equipment that makes my running safe and limits injury risk.
Human bodies evolved to run. This is visible in adaptations such as short toes and enlarged gluteus maximus (buttock) muscles. A healthy person doesn’t need any special tools to be able to walk or jog. It happens naturally. Of course there are differences in between individuals in terms of biomechanics, shape, size, and type of feet, however since early childhood we also develop relevant tactics to balance, walk, and run. Well, that natural process is nowadays altered by the shoes we started wearing as children.
There’s a big difference in technique between barefoot and shoe running. The former would land on forefoot whereas the later get a full heel strike. This makes a massive difference on how much impact the body takes during landing. Hitting the heel against the ground on every step results in serious ground reaction forces, impacting the whole body and spine. Heel strike should be a part of normal walking but it creates much larger stress in running gait. This gives a strong argument for barefoot runs because no matter how much padding in the shoe, there will still be loads more impact related to the whole-foot stomp.
Currently, there’s no valid scientific research to back up a debate on which type of running causes a greater injury risk. All the publications and discussions are based on anecdotal facts. The most important message however is that barefoot running and shoe running are very different. If you’ve used the generously padded shoes for most of your life, you must train and re-learn how to run barefoot before taking long distances. Start gradually to see if it works for you. Otherwise it might not be so much fun. And more importantly than the pleasure of a morning jog, you must ensure that your body is conditioned enough to stay injury-free!