What is the point of those silly toe shoes? Why are those runners not wearing shoes? What does that do for their form? Do they know that there can be glass and other sharp objects on the ground? These and many other judgmental questions and statements often flood my mind when I see barefoot or minimalist runners out and about.
Barefoot and minimalist running have created quite a buzz in the fitness community in recent years. Barefoot running is just what it sounds like -- running without shoes, while minimalists run in thin-soled shoes. This novel branch of running can be contrasted with modern shod running, or running with shoes.
I assume that the first runners did so without shoes, so it’s safe to say that barefoot running has been around for a while. However, it became greatly popularized following the release of Christopher McDougall’s book, "Born to Run" (2009). McDougall wrote about Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians, who run barefoot or in tire-tread sandals. He also used the book to express his belief/understanding that running shoes have done little to prevent running-related injuries.
But even before McDougall detailed the running method of the Tarahumara people, Olympic athletes were setting marathon world records in their bare feet. For example, in 1960, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, known as the greatest marathoner of all time, won the first of his two gold medals without shoes. Around the same time in history, England’s Bruce Tulloh was breaking European running records—almost always sans shoes.
If these guys can break records without shoes, then there must be something to it.
It seems that both the pro-shod and pro-barefoot camps tout injury prevention as a part of the case for their cause. Those whom embrace barefoot or minimalist running argue that this more natural way of running strengthens the feet and greatly reduces the risk of chronic injuries like IT Band Syndrome, Runner’s Knee, and shin splints. Proponents of shod running present the obvious risk of puncture wounds and infection, as well as potential strain on the Achilles tendon and calf muscles as reasons to keep your shoes on.
The primary difference between the two forms of running lies in the gait. With running shoes, the heel is typically the first to strike the ground. This also means more pounding on knees and shins. Running barefoot causes the foot to strike the ground forefoot or midfoot. Research has shown that landing on your forefoot or midfoot while running causes you to flex your knees, ankles, and hips. However, when your foot strikes heel first, your knees are locked and therefore take a tremendous amount of impact.
“I won’t go back to regular shoes”
I recently spoke to a friend and barefoot running advocate, Christiana Fitzpatrick, about why she made the switch.
“My brother told me about it, about two years ago. We tried it together over Thanksgiving break that year… I liked how natural it felt, so I bought some of those crazy shoes and started slowly. Soon I was able to run longer than I ever had before.”
When asked about the difference, Fitzpatrick noted how the change in stride cushions your kneed more. “I won’t go back to regular shoes,” she said.
If you are considering making the transition to barefoot running, please do so slowly. Incorporate some barefoot/minimalist running into your normal routine instead of making the switch all at once.
On beginning to run barefoot, Fitzpatrick said, “You have to kind of retrain your body and transition over slowly—most injuries that people get when they switch come from trying to make the change too quickly.”
Some practical things to do when beginning to run barefoot include walking around the house barefoot or practicing weight-bearing movement (e.g. walking or using an elliptical trainer) with a minimalist shoe. Overall, be patient with yourself. You will be re-learning how to run, and it may take some time.
Also, note that your foot, ankle, and lower leg will have to do more work in order to support your body in motion when running in minimal shoes or barefoot. Therefore, it will be of utmost importance to strengthen your lower body and core.
Should I shed the shod?
Yes, barefoot running has done wonders for many people. But there is no “one size fits all” style of running, and honestly, barefoot running may not be your “thing.” In fact, it is possible to be a forefoot runner in shoes and have the same benefits as a forefoot barefoot runner. Also, with over 50 percent of runners reporting injuries every year, there is unfortunately no universal prevention method. This reinforces the idea that, in all of fitness, it is of utmost importance to know and listen to your own body.
If you are able to, and especially if you have suffered some gait-related running injury, it may be worth your while to look into this running style. If you do decide to make the switch, I’d love to hear about your experience. I think I’m going to give it a go myself.
Rashad J. Gober is a gym junkie, avid runner and freelance writer whose interests include pop culture and healthy living. But he's not a doctor, so his suggestions are no substitute for medical advice. Feel free to contact him via Twitter or email with any comments or suggestions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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