Over the past few years a new fad has been spreading throughout the running and exercise world. Barefoot running or use of minimalist running shoes is said to be a “new better way to run”. The origin was among elite runners who wanted to add a training technique once or twice a week to strengthen their feet. Some say that there has been a decrease in “running associated” knee pain seen with the increase in barefoot runners. However, barefoot running may not be the best option for you.
A runner’s motivation to run barefoot is important in determining if barefoot running is right for them. Many don’t know why and have no plan as to how to adapt to this new style of running. Some runners simply want to improve their performance, while some are enticed by internet advertising or shoe store salesmen. A majority are simply bored with their current training regimen and/or shoes.
Regardless of the reasoning the change from traditional running to barefoot running must be progressive and well thought out. It is recommended to allow months or years to totally change your running style not the weeks that many aim for. Runners who are experienced, younger, and of normal body weight and who also walk barefoot at home are more likely to handle barefoot running and/or minimalist shoes than those who are beginners, older with heavier body weights and typically wear shoes around the house.
Rarely is barefoot running or the use of minimalist shoes recommended to new runners or runners starting again after a long layoff, as it may increase chance of injury. There have been very few scientific studies done on the biomechanics of barefoot or minimalist running. It was found that 75-89% of the people studied are “rearfoot strikers”. This means that when running, the first part of the foot to make contact with the ground is the heel. This increases stress, primarily through the knee joints.
Barefoot running or running in minimalist shoes results in runners striking more with the forefoot. This decreases the stress through the knees but increases the stress through the ankle and metatarsals. The incidences of achilles tendonitis, metatarsal stress fractures and plantar injuries, such as capsulitis have been found to increase. In addition the stress fractures have been found to be more severe than typical overuse fractures and take longer to heal and require longer periods of immobilization. Biomechanics and foot structure are important for determining if feet are stable enough to tolerate barefoot running.
Anyone can do barefoot running on an intermittent basis, the question is whether or not they gain benefit or injury if it is done on a regular basis. Injuries tend to occur in older athletes (30+) or those who change too quickly. Runners with a more stable foot structure tend to tolerate and transition better to barefoot running without injury.
In general, definitive scientific evidence is still lacking as to whether or not barefoot running is beneficial. Many people require the stability and protection that traditional athletic shoes provide. The mistake many people make is they try to make a drastic change from what is “normal” for them too quickly!