Peter Milburn, Griffith University
The human species is one of the most efficient terrestrial animals. We adapted to run on dry riverbeds and grasslands, but development of modern society has strained the evolutionary process.
Footwear was initially introduced to protect the soles of the feet or provide traction or warmth. But as society has changed, footwear’s role has adapted to provide cushioning for the hard cobblestones or pavement, broad protection for industrial tasks, and more recently, as a fashion accessory and performance optimiser.
A return to barefoot running has emerged as a subculture in recreational running, its devotees pointing to reduced injury rates and a more “natural” running experience.
Perhaps the biggest impetus for the trend was Christopher McDougall’s 2010 best-selling book, Born to Run. While based on the story of Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians who run ultra-endurance distances barefoot or in tyre-tread sandals, McDougall also concludes that running shoes have done little to prevent injuries over the past 40 years.
Apart from the aficionados writing in the popular literature, a key proponent of barefoot running is Harvard University evolutionary biologist Dr Daniel Leiberman. He argues that habitually barefoot runners land more on the mid-foot or forefoot, which reduces the transient shock on contact.
Runners who wear shoes, on the other hand, land more on the heel and rely on the design of the shoe to absorb shock and control the foot during running.
But Leiberman suggests the issue is less about barefoot running being better than shod running and more about how we run.
Running barefoot encourages the runner to cushion the impact of landing by adjusting their running style to land with their toes down. The shock of landing is transmitted largely to the muscles at the back of the leg. As a result, barefoot and minimally shod running appears to reduce the risk of injury because they generate much lower collision forces.
But don’t throw your running shoes away just yet. Barefoot runners must learn to change the way they run: landing more on the mid-foot or forefoot, rather than on the heel. Then the elastic structures within the foot will do the job they were designed to do. And the Achilles tendon and calf muscles will contract eccentrically to cushion this extra load.
For those new to barefoot running, the unaccustomed strain on muscles and tendons can actually lead to injury – exactly what the change to barefoot running was supposed to prevent.
The solution? Start out slowly on a safe surface (grass or sand) to toughen the sole of the foot and allow the soft tissue of the foot and ankle to adapt to the new loading strategy. Alternating running barefoot one day and shod the next will also decrease the risk of injury.
We all have different abilities to learn and to adapt to new skills: some will make the adjustment and thrive as barefoot runners; others will struggle to make the change, particularly if they have irreversible structural problems with their tendons and muscles, caused by decades of wearing sneakers.
Unfortunately, ditching your sneakers isn’t the silver bullet to preventing running injuries.
Robert Lockie, University of Newcastle
There’s a growing interest in barefoot running, especially in relation to running long distances. Research articles, opinion pieces, and websites have argued both for and against the efficacy of running without shoes, but few have stressed the importance of a measured transition.
The primary argument for barefoot running is that it encourages the use of more natural biomechanics, which is lost when using traditional footwear.
But it is very important to keep in mind that changes occur to technique when transitioning from shod (wearing shoes) to barefoot running.
Primarily, there is a shift to forefoot/midfoot contact, as opposed to a rearfoot or heel, contact.
Research has found this has performance benefits by showing that faster elite distance runners tended to have forefoot/midfoot contact.
To facilitate this change in foot contact, step length is reduced, and step frequency increased. This means that over a given distance, you will complete more steps of a relatively shorter length when you run with bare feet.
This change of technique is important, as when you remove the cushioning that is built into most running shoes, your running style must change to ensure the shock experienced when landing is reduced.
Research on habitual barefoot runners found shorter step lengths helped reduce the force of impact.
Proprioception and strength of the individual muscles in the feet could also improve with barefoot running.
These muscles act to stabilise the foot during ground contact, a demand that is greatly reduced when running with shoes.
Despite all this, there are some problems associated with barefoot running. When running without shoes, your feet have no protection have against the outside environment.
While this may not be an issue on certain surfaces, such as grass, there may be problems if you’re a trail or urban runner.
It also takes time to adapt to the changes in stress that will be experienced when running under new conditions.
A habitually shod runner will need to adapt to the different stresses experienced during barefoot running.
Several shoe companies are tapping into the barefoot running trend through changes to shoe design.
These shoes are designed to mimic barefoot running – they don’t have the cushioning that’s present in traditional running shoes – while still providing protection from outside elements.
Examples include the Nike Free, New Balance Minimus, Saucony Kinvara, and Vibram FiveFingers. The use of these shoes could serve as a bridge from running with shoes to running barefoot.
Interestingly, all the current research has focused on distance running: no research has analysed barefoot maximal sprinting.
This is significant, as correct sprinting technique should incorporate forefoot contact to help reduce ground contact time and increase step frequency.
Further, if the muscles within the feet are strengthened during barefoot running, they could provide benefits for sprinting, where maximal force output is required.
Here are some useful pointers for barefoot running, especially for those conditioned to running with shoes:
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is it’s not necessarily the shoes you wear that cause injury, but rather incorrect running mechanics.
Ensuring that your running gait doesn’t predispose you to injury should be a stronger concern than just considering the type of footwear to be used.