Barefoot Running Benefits: Real or Imaginary?

It’s the latest fitness fad – running barefoot. Or wearing the oxymoronically-named “barefoot shoes.”

Is barefoot running a passing fad or a lasting trend?

Some runners have become true believers in going barefoot, while others are convinced the benefits are all hype. To help you sort out fact from fiction, here’s a summary of what we know about barefoot running.

Humans ran long distances for millions of years before shoes were invented.

Running was an essential part of survival. Early humans used a hunting technique of chasing other animals to exhaustion. The secret to our success? Humans excel at shedding the excess body heat that develops when running. Our lack of body hair, large brains, and ability to mouth-breathe are three adaptations that allow us to shed heat efficiently. Sooner or later, other animals would have to stop to avoid fainting from heat. So early hunters could eventually catch up to almost any target, even speedy sprinters like zebras or wildebeest.

Barefoot runners are invariably fore-foot landers.

With each forward step, you have a choice of two basic gait patterns:

• plant the heel of your foot, or

• slightly point your foot and land on the front part of the foot.

If you run without shoes, you’re going to naturally, almost automatically, adopt a barefoot running technique to protect your heel by landing on the forefoot. As compared to landing on the heel, landing on the front of the foot creates a smoother cycle of impact without an initial spike of pressure. Runners who use a pattern of forefoot planting – with its moderate impact forces – have a reduced incidence of certain running-related injuries, such as sprained ankles, plantar fasciitis, and shin splints.

Wearing shoes can muffle the incoming sensory signals from your foot.

If you’re not getting feedback from the muscles and joints of your foot, your brain becomes less adept at fine-tuned control of foot alignment. Your muscles could become weak and you’d be oblivious to the early-warning signs of injury.

Barefoot running uses 4{a3acb2be643effc4b7b4b3705df5cb2eae026059a1d075d54be8af4d92e7e619} less energy than running with shoes.

We don’t know if the energy savings of barefoot running is due to increased biomechanical efficiency of the forefoot-striking pattern of gait, or whether wearing shoes just uses up more energy because of the weight of the shoe itself.

Barefoot runners have been winners in international competitions.

Remember Zola Budd? She was one of the favorites to win the 5,000 meter race in the 1984 Olympics until a collision with Mary Decker sidetracked her (and Decker too.) Budd ran barefoot. Before her, the winner of the marathon in the 1960 Rome Olympics was the barefoot Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia.

Barefoot running involves a different pattern of use of the muscles and joints.

Expect a period of adaptation before it becomes totally comfortable for you.

My experiments with forefoot running.

First, some background. I’m in my mid-fifties and my running is pretty casual. I run five to seven miles a week at the most, and often less than that. My longest runs are a once or twice annual 5K. (And my best time is 28:40.) So far I haven’t had significant injury issues from running. I wear running shoes with straight lasts, a moderate amount of arch support, and a moderate amount of heel cushioning. As long as they meet my minimum level of comfort and fit, I shop for shoes by price.

I got intrigued with the concept of barefoot running and wanted to find out more about it. The best way was to try it out for myself. To begin with, I thought I’d keep my shoes on and learn a forefoot-strike pattern of running. After all, many of the touted benefits of barefoot running have to do with the gait pattern of forefoot planting, not with lack of footwear per se.

So the next time I went for a 2-3 mile run, I practiced landing on the front part of the foot. That went smoothly enough – it’s not hard to do. It seemed to work more smoothly when I ran a little faster (sprinters are more likely to be forefoot-strikers than long distance runners are). It definitely engaged my muscles differently – my calves were working much harder.

Toward the end of the run I began to feel a twinge in the back of the calf. From self-protection I reverted to my more habitual heel-strike pattern. The next day my calf was fine. I’m not giving up with forefoot striking – I plan to continue with it and see how far I can go with it, though for now, given my level of commitment to running, I see no reason to invest in a new pair of shoes for the purpose.

Think you’ll try barefoot running yourself?

You could start just by practicing a forefoot strike like I did while wearing your normal running shoes. I recommend you prepare yourself with extra calf stretching. And start with shorter-than normal distances until your muscles rebalance to accommodate the different pattern.

See how it goes. Maybe in six months we’ll both be out there with those funny shoes with the five separate toes.

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