Barefoot running becomes trendier as fitness enthusiasts search for innovative and efficient methods to maximize the benefits of their workouts.
As its popularity rises, so do the voices of proponents and skeptics.
Many fitness gurus advertise what they describe to be the undeniable benefits of barefoot running.
Other medical and fitness experts advise against barefoot running, cautioning even seasoned athletes against the practice.
Because there are so many strong opinions on the subject, it’s hard to make a decision either way in terms of whether or not barefoot running is worth trying, especially if you aren’t a seasoned runner.
Although there are many opinions regarding the possible health benefits of barefoot running, they seem to be less varied than one might think. Most experts seem to be either completely in favor of barefoot running or entirely against it.
Physical therapist David Jeter is an advocate for barefoot running. His support of barefoot running is based in the way the practice impacts our strides and the effect that change has on our legs and feet, and on the human body as a whole.
“I am a big fan of barefoot running. Presumably, we have run for five million years or so without shoes, using a forefoot strike, so this must be the most efficient and correct stride to use. One of the most important aspects to barefoot running is the forefoot strike. Forefoot strike has been demonstrated to be correlated with lower injury rates in cross country runners.”
According to Jeter, runners who wear conventional sneakers place the pressure caused by running on their heels (heel strike) because they don’t have to utilize other parts of their feet.
“Traditional running shoes have allowed a population of runners to strike with their heel first, an action you would never be able to perform for any length of time without shoes. When you strike with the heel, the body is forced to decelerate pronation through the whole leg. There are more ligamentous structures (or ligaments) that take the ground reaction forces in the foot, the deltoid ligament, medial collateral ligament, the knee, as well as the Iliotibial Band (ITB). It is as if the person is catching himself with all of these structures to absorb the shock, then some of the energy is released back into the opposite leg stride. During a forefoot strike, you have the plantar fascia, Achilles tendon, calf, and hamstrings that tend to absorb the force and then release that stored energy into the next stride,” Jeter explains.
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Jeter recommends that runners who wear conventional running shoes but want to try barefoot running start off slowly.
“For runners who heel strike, I would attempt to begin a transition to a forefoot strike slowly, and in shoes. This process should take a couple of months. Initially, you are placing a tremendous amount of stress on the plantar fascia (sole of the foot) and calf. Many runners complain of calf pain as they make this transition. When a person can adequately run three miles with a forefoot strike, then they can start barefoot running on a soft surface.”
Barbara Bergin, Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon, is not in favor of barefoot running.
Her concerns regarding this trend are based in the evolution of our feet and the fact that we spend the majority of our waking lives in conventional shoes.
“Our feet are deconditioned for barefoot running in every way. They’re soft. Try to imagine what a caveman’s foot would have looked like. Our feet certainly have not evolved into something sturdy and that’s because, with our rapidly evolving intelligence, we quickly learned how to make shoes. Some of us have very high, rigid arches. Some have very flat feet. A relative few have nice, flexible arches and no mechanical liabilities; like bunions and hammer toes and other boney protuberances. Bottom line, we need support. Jogging shoes protect and support the foot. This is what we’re used to.”
Bergin goes on to describe some of the injuries that can be associated with this style of running. “I’m seeing lots of patients who are trying out this trend, and I’m seeing lots of injuries; stress fractures, regular fractures (unprotected toes), cuts, plantar fasciitis and other soft tissues repetitive strain disorders.”
Bergin recommends that if you are determined to try barefoot running, you approach it like learning to run for the first time.
“Walk a quarter mile barefoot. Do that every other day for a week, and so on and so forth. Spend a lot of time walking around your home and work barefoot. And watch for signs of a stress reaction in your foot; pain, swelling, tenderness in the middle of your forefoot or your heel.”
Although Bergin and Jeter have very different opinions regarding the efficiencies and risks associated with the barefoot running trend, they agree that people who decided to try this style of running do so carefully.
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Danielle Miller is a freelance writer and editor from the Boston area. She is a publishing project manager and has written articles on health and relationship-related topics for various outlets for several years. She is also a book editor, working mainly on books relating to science, technology, and user experience.