There is no doubt that when you ask someone to run with and without shoes, their running gait changes. This simple observation, coupled with the ‘primal’ movement now fashionable in the exercise industry, has led many people to argue that running barefoot is natural, more efficient, and reduces injury.
Clearly, barefoot running is natural (in the sense that we all come into this world naked) and there is good science to support the view that heavier footwear increases the energy cost of running. It is also true to say that your running gait, when analysed, is different with and without shoes. Wearing shoes, a runner tends to land more towards the rear foot and heel, while efficient barefoot runners tend to land more laterally and towards the ball of the foot as they attempt to minimise impact. The original studies that supported these observations and arguably launched the barefoot craze are published here www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu
It is something of a huge leap of faith to go from these observations to the claim that barefoot running is ‘safer’ and there is currently no evidence to support this contention. Indeed, even the Vibram Fivefingers® website is only prepared to say that barefoot and minimalist footwear running ‘may’ result in reduced injury risk. It also makes strong recommendations regarding how you should gradually accustom yourself to not wearing traditional footwear for exercise activities, particularly if you have flat feet and/or already use orthotics for gait correction.
Equally, there is also no evidence to support the idea that the more expensive the (traditional) shoe, and the more ‘technology’ it has, the lower your injury risk when running. There are many injury risk factors during exercise; impact and running gait represent just two of these, and wearing a certain type of shoe may or may not make any difference.
If you are prepared to look as critically as possible at the published research literature regarding barefoot, minimalist and traditional footwear and running, you would probably arrive at the following conclusions:
- Reducing your running injury risk is not just about wearing a shoe that is well-cushioned and controls pronation/supination (rotation down towards the floor/upward away from the floor) since there are both extrinsic (e.g., training errors) and intrinsic (how you are ‘put together’) risk factors that determine your overall injury risk.
- It is not known whether (on their own) expensive running shoes either prevent injuries or increase the risk of injuries.
- The best shoe for you is likely to be one that is based upon your gait/biomechanics, training programme and injury history. It is most unlikely that it will need to be the most expensive.
- There are possible advantages to going barefoot (e.g., improved ‘natural’ shock absorption, decreased oxygen cost of running) but these are probably offset by the high probability of puncture wounds and abrasions.
- Moving from a shoe with a sole and heel to running barefoot requires adaptation other than a thickening and hardening of the skin: the Achilles tendon must also adapt to the revised heel position and the general musculature of the foot must also improve its overall strength and endurance. (NB: this is especially important if you wear high heels all day on most days of the week).
- The early man/‘it’s natural’ argument is flawed. Early hominids were light, continuously active and grew up becoming habituated to wearing nothing on their feet, gradually acquiring their barefoot running gait over years; not over a couple of training sessions.
- Footwear that provides protection but allows the foot to function as when going barefoot may be an option for those with good running mechanics, who are not particularly overweight and who are prepared to spend time adapting their training to this type of shoe (NB: this is not too dissimilar to a track runner who chooses to progress to racing spikes via a ‘racing flat’ (a shoe that typically has less cushioning, less motion control and often a much lower heel than a road running shoe).
- Barefoot running is a skill that needs to be learned and practised. Just as there is no single perfect running technique with shoes, there is no single perfect technique without.
Finally, it’s somewhat ironic that competing manufacturers of minimalist footwear are now stressing the many technologies that their products offer rather in the manner of traditional running shoe salesmen, possibly to justify their high cost. If you really do believe in natural, primal simplicity, shouldn’t you be asking Ray Mears how to make some footwear out of birch bark? Or if your minimalist footwear really isn’t just a fashion statement, why not buy some old-style plimsolls for £10?
- Noakes T (2001), The Lore of Running (4th Edition), Human Kinetics, in particular: How to choose appropriate running shoes, pp 264-273; and Staying injury free, pp 739-837.
- Bramble DM and Libermann DE (2004), Endurance running and the evolution of homo, Nature, November, pp 432.
- Park RJ (1992), Human energy expenditure from Australopithecus Afarensis to the 4-minute mile: exemplars and case studies, Ex. Sport Sci Rev, 20:185-220.
- Donatelli RA (1996), The Biomechanics of the Foot and Ankle (2nd Edition), FA Davis.
- Brukner P and Khan K (1994), Normal biomechanics of running in Clinical Sports Medicine, McGraw Hill, pp 46-60.
- Lycholat T (2003), Preventing running injuries (part I), Fitness Network, June/July, pp 26-28.
- Lycholat T (2003), Preventing running injuries (part II), Fitness Network, August/September, pp 26-28.
Click here to read Paul Mumford’s barefoot review.
Tony Lycholat is a coach, coach educator and high performance scientist, with degrees in sport science and sports medicine. He has worked with Olympic and elite professional sportsmen and women for over 25 years, and has been the technical editor at FitPro since 1993.