If running barefoot is actually better for our bodies, why do we spend so much money on the latest and greatest running shoes? There is so much science and technology that goes into making a running shoe, and we are led to believe that the right shoe will make us faster, stronger and less injury prone.
For this reason, running barefoot doesn’t seem like the most efficient and effective way to move. However, there are many myths and misconceptions about running with shoes (also known as running ‘shod’). In essence, running shod might prevent injuries and provide support in the short term, but have you ever thought about what running shoes are doing in the long term?
Essentially, a supportive running shoe does two things:
- supports the feet and ankles, removing the need for the smaller stabilising muscles to do any work to keep your feet and ankles in the right position
- forces your body into a position which isn’t natural.
For example, if you pronate (meaning your feet roll inwards when you run), you may be prescribed orthotics to prevent your feet from rolling. The key point here is that this isn’t actually fixing the problem, it’s merely addressing the symptom. The reason your feet are rolling inwards in the first place is most likely because either you are lacking strength in the muscles around the ankle, or your technique is forcing your feet to roll inwards. So, there’s a high chance that correcting your style and building strength will not only remove the symptoms, it will fix the problem all together.
It’s pretty simple, but to validate the above theory, here is an explanation of the science behind running barefoot.
Speed and efficiency
Despite the fact that nearly all elite level athletes compete with shoes, there is evidence to suggest that running barefoot is more economical . Firstly, the weight of a shoe has an impact when we run, as it takes more energy to accelerate and decelerate when wearing shoes . Therefore by running barefoot you are using less energy as you don’t have the added weight of a shoe.
Secondly, when we run with shoes, we have a certain running pattern or style, which usually results in the heel striking the ground first. By landing on the heel, and thus behind our centre of gravity, the body is not able to utilise the energy we create by striking the ground as efficiently as when we run barefoot. The further forward we land on our feet, the more we are able to utilise this energy to propel ourselves forward. Therefore, ground strike as elastic energy is lessened when we run with shoes , so in theory, this would also slow us down.
When running shod (with shoes), the decreased proprioception (i.e. your body’s ability to feel where your feet are without looking at them) and increased height off the ground (i.e. increased lever arm) may lead to an increase in ankle sprains, the most common acute injury to runners. Decreased proprioception basically means that your body doesn’t know what you are running on, and the increase in height off the ground means that you raise your foot’s centre of gravity, increasing the chance of your foot destabilising. This increased injury susceptibility can also be caused by other corrective equipment such as arch supports and orthotics .
Once the muscles have weakened as an effect of using supportive equipment (in shoes or other corrective equipment) support must be used . Basically the muscles don’t know how to act or are too weak to act as they did before. It’s a self-defeating cycle.
When changing from our natural running style by wearing shoes, we alter our running gait (step) to one that is much more injury prone . The extra cushioning encourages us to land on the heel first or ‘heel strike’. This changes the angle at which the foot strikes the ground, decreases the number of muscles utilised in the lower leg and increases the shock up through the leg .
Benefits of barefoot running
Barefoot running forces the body to compensate for the lack of cushioning underfoot. It allows a mechanical adaptation resulting in less mechanic stress and a softer heel strike – all of which decrease the chance of injury [2, 7, 8]. There has even been evidence that the more cushioning – and thus expensive – the shoe, the greater the chance of injury .
Like Yoda said “You must unlearn what you have learned”. Most of us have spent our lives learning to move in a totally unnatural way and running is no different. But this is a process that takes time. Those who are accustomed to wearing shoes will find that the soles of their feet are relatively soft. To ease yourself into barefoot running, start by walking around barefoot whenever possible, to ‘toughen up’ your soles. Consider the use of a low support shoe or minimalist footwear (Vibram Five Fingers, Zen, Luna Sandals, Stem) to help build up those small stabilising muscles and help fast track your barefoot development. When you begin running, break it into run/walk segments, with more walking than running at first. Slowly transition in more running and less walking, until it’s all running.
Remember that the experience of running barefoot is different from running shod. You can no longer just plug in the iPod and shuffle mindlessly for kilometres. You must be alert and attentive to your surrounds. The terrain can constantly change, which will affect your style, gait, speed and level of attention and you need to be mindful of obstacles and dangers. But that’s half the fun of barefoot running!
1. Jungers, W.L., Biomechanics: Barefoot running strikes back. Nature, 2010. 463(7280): p. 433-434.
2. Warburton, M., Barefoot running. Sportscience, 2001. 5(3): p. 1-4.
3. Divert, C., et al., Mechanical comparison of barefoot and shod running. International journal of sports medicine, 2005. 26(7): p. 593-598.
4. Divert, C., et al., Barefoot-Shod Running Differences: Shoe or Mass Effect? International journal of sports medicine, 2008. 29(6): p. 512-518.
5. Willems, T.M., et al., A prospective study of gait related risk factors for exercise-related lower leg pain. Gait & posture, 2006. 23(1): p. 91-98.
6. von Tscharner, V., B. Goepfert, and B.M. Nigg, Changes in EMG signals for the muscle tibialis anterior while running barefoot or with shoes resolved by non-linearly scaled wavelets. Journal of biomechanics, 2003. 36(8): p. 1169-1176.
7. De Wit, B., D. De Clercq, and P. Aerts, Biomechanical analysis of the stance phase during barefoot and shod running. Journal of biomechanics, 2000. 33(3): p. 269-278.
8. Divert, C., et al., Stiffness adaptations in shod running. Journal of applied biomechanics, 2005. 21(4): p. 311.