We’ve all heard of or at least seen Vibram’s FiveFinger minimalist shoes. Maybe you’ve even tried them. But do you know about the new barefoot running fad? Minimalist running shoes can be a segway into barefoot running or a protective alternative, but the theory behind the two is the same: barefoot/minimalist running can (according to some) help prevent common running injuries while strengthening your ankles, knees, and legs.
According to some researchers, running sneakers, while commonly accepted as the norm, may actually be doing more harm than good. Recent studies have shown that modern running shoes can cause excessive pronation and put extra stress on joints such as knees and hips. They can restrict the natural torsion of the foot and increase the likelihood of heel striking, which is landing directly on the heel when the foot is planted while running.
Running without modern running sneakers, on the other hand, allows for the natural movement of the foot. Barefoot running is, after all, the most natural way for humans to run isn’t it? Think about it: humans have been running for survival for thousands of years, the vast majority of those without today’s Nikes. And there were no podiatrists or physical therapists around centuries ago to help heal Achilles tendon problems or ITB issues; those occupations arose out of need when these running injuries became chronic, which happened around the same time that we as humans began doing everything in sneakers. Without sneakers, the foot tends to heel strike less and land on the forefoot more. This allows for better shock absorption through the stride. Running barefoot, especially on uneven surfaces, also strengthens the feet as well as the legs as a whole.
So, barefoot running seems like an easy fix for all of your running injuries, right? Not quite. While there are many scientists and prominent runners who promote barefoot running, there are still some who are hesitant about it. Depending on what kind of surface you’re running on, running barefoot can lead to cuts and blisters on the bottom of your feet (that’s why minimalist shoes like the FiveFinger are more popular than regular barefoot running).
More importantly, if you jump right into barefoot running it can lead to worse injuries than the ones you might be trying to avoid by running barefoot in the first place. If you’re interested in trying it out, it is important to take baby steps when beginning barefoot running. Add on a few minutes of barefoot running on grass to the end of your run and gradually work up to running more and more time barefoot. Eventually, you’ll be able to do more barefoot running than shod running!
Blog post by Summer 2014 Intern Kim Bolick.