Should You Toss Your Running Shoes and Just Go Barefoot?
Remember when you were a kid? You raced around the playground or the yard for hours at a time, somehow managing not to hurt yourself despite your lack of $150 running shoes and custom-made $400 orthotic inserts. There’s a growing sense in many quarters that your childhood impulse may have been the correct one and that the very shoes we think are protecting us from harm may be causing it.
For decades, there’s been a grass-roots movement for extremely minimalist, i.e., barefoot, running. But only in the past few years have shoe companies begun to get in on the act, too. They now offer stripped-down models that don’t have the padding and structural elements that characterize conventional running shoes. There’s no little irony in Nike’s instructions to begin “barefoot-like” running with one $90-plus model of its Free lineup, then phase down through two more models before you’re running with a “nearly naked feeling.” (Presumably, they don’t want you to take the next step and swap Nikes for the actual naked feeling, though.) Other companies, including New Balance, Newton, Ecco, and Terra Plana, also have minimalist footwear for running and walking.
In his recent book, Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall explores the broader notion of what “natural” running would entail. Taking aim at shoe companies, he argues that modern running shoes promote a heel-first stride that makes us more vulnerable to injuries. (He’s a convert; since running in Vibram FiveFingers, a neoprene socklike foot covering, and changing his stride, he’s seen his problems disappear.) McDougall cites studies showing that more expensive running shoes don’t necessarily lead to fewer injuries. Other research suggests that heavily cushioned shoes actually prevent your foot from sensing the ground and can make you stomp down harder than if you didn’t have all that padding.
“They don’t let the foot, and ultimately the body, work like it’s supposed to,” says Galahad Clark, owner of Terra Plana, which produces a shoe technology—Vivo Barefoot—that puts just a 3-millimeter, flexible (but puncture-resistant) sole between your foot and the ground.
Vivo Barefoot Running Shoe
“Expensive running shoes let you run in a way and arguably for distances that you normally wouldn’t have been able to do,” he says. Walking and running barefoot, or close to it, allows what Clark calls your “amazing” foot to adjust to whatever surfaces—even modern, hard ones—and circumstances it experiences.
So what’s the evidence behind this notion? And should you try it? There isn’t strong evidence that barefoot running is any better or worse than running with more structured shoes, says Veni Kong, a kinesiologist at the University of Texas-El Paso, in part because there aren’t enough regular barefoot runners with whom to compare users of running shoes. But there’s a lack of a solid evidence base for running footwear in general, she notes. People are often prescribed shoes with elevated, padded heels that are designed to control pronation, but a March review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found no evidence behind the idea that this will prevent injury or improve performance.
Keith Williams, an exercise biologist at the University of California-Davis, says humans are both incredibly varied and incredibly adaptable. The former means some of us pronate our feet as few as 2 degrees, and others as much as 25 degrees. Our bones articulate differently, our ligaments are structured differently. Some of us are heavy, some aren’t. And some people, he says, have truly been helped by modern shoes, inserts, and orthotics. Others probably don’t need the bells and whistles. So to prescribe one kind of shoe (or lack thereof) or running technique for everyone is not a good idea. “I’m against the one-size-fits-all approach for anything,” he says.
On the other hand, Williams says, our adaptability means that a lot of us could probably adjust over time to running with minimal or no cushioning, and for some, it might bring benefits. Just by wearing lighter footwear, you reduce the amount of energy involved in running. That kind of change, or varying the stresses on the lower legs, could theoretically reduce injury or improve performance for some people.
If you’d like to give it a whirl, don’t jump into it whole hog. Start off slowly, advises Kong, and stop if it doesn’t feel right, since you’re probably used to wearing regular shoes and need to adjust. “If we said to everyone in the world, just kick off your shoes and go running, a lot of people would hurt themselves,” says Clark. Obviously, be aware of the surface you’re running on; simply to protect against cuts and scrapes, going totally barefoot down the sidewalks of New York is probably not a great idea. If you’re using minimalist shoes, try to avoid landing on your heel, which you may be used to doing in padded shoes, and perhaps start out by running on grass, Clark says. In the end, he says, the ultimate experts on footwear are you and your body.
Certainly, some running shoes can injure your feet, ankles or knees. But, that assumes you are wearing the right running shoes for your foot structure, biomechanics and deformities (if any).
Having to choose between a properly fitted, well-designed running shoe or going barefoot, is an easy decision. Wear the shoe.
Most people’s feet and ankles need good biomechanical control and support—especially runners.
However, there are exceptions. Some people do excel at barefoot running. I would suspect these athletes have a very good biomechanic structure to their feet and don’t need additional biomechanic control or support.
I would ponder to guess that the successful barefoot runners adapt to running barefoot and since they literally feel the ground and surface they consciously or eventually, unconsciously, place their foot on the ground in a way that protects them.
For those people who are considering barefoot running, I would only try it on a safe surface and if you have good health and great foot health—no biomechanical faults, foot weakness or other foot deformities.
Lastly, I will read McDougal’s book and give you an update on my thoughts. If anyone has read it or has experiences running barefoot, I would love to hear about them.
I absolutely agree that "one size fits all" isn't ever a viable approach. Minimalist running will not work for everone, but it is worth a try if you have been sidelined with any kind of running related injury. Here are a few pointers.
For me, my switch to minimalist (i wear Vibram Five Fingers) has resurrected my triathlon career after a nagging IT Band syndrome kept me sidelined for 3 + years.
I had (during the years of injury) only the ability to run for 10 minutes before my knee would lock up with the severe pain of IT syndrome. I had to work it up gradually, but now I can run for 40 minutes at a time.
Going gradual is absolutely the key. Never, ever, ever think that you can kick off your shoes and go barefoot in a day. It takes lots of patience to get those sleepy muscles in your feet to wake up. Soreness, that feels something like plantar fasciitis is common. But you HAVE to ramp up. Calf soreness was also a problem in the beginning. Now, I am running without the pain (for the most part), but it took 3 1/2 months!
Oh yeah! Ice is absolutely your best friend (especially in the beginning). Do it early and often while breaking into minimalist running.
I eventually want to get back into running ironman traithlons... but baby steps first. Just glad to be back on the road.
This topic of barefoot running is obviously getting plenty of airplay recently. It was the topic-of-the-day last week on NPR's "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook -http://www.onpointradio.org/2010/11/us-runners-marathon For those interested in the topic, the show is worth a listen. I suspect Ashbrook was prompted to address the subject by Jennifer Kahn's recent piece in The New Yorker about one of America's top distance runners, Dathan Ritzenheim, and his relatively new coach, Alberto Salazar (3-time NYC Marathon Champion in the '80s), working on altering Dathan's running form so as to land on his mid-foot with each step http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/11/08/101108fa_fact_kahn
Salazar is convinced that a new and improved running gait is essential if Dathan is ever to achieve true world champion status as a marathon runner. Also on Ashbrook's panel was Senior Editor of Running Times Magazine, Scott Douglas, who provides the most sensibility to the whole discussion. Scott also takes on Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run, on his Running Times blog - definitely worth a read -http://wpblogs.runningtimes.com/blogs/talktest/?p=819
As a former marathoner myself of thirty years with career highlights of a Boston win, three Olympic Trials qualifiers and a PR of 2:11, I can attest that barefoot running in nothing new. Actually Abebe Bikila (2-time Olympic Champion - winning the Rome Olympic Marathon barefooted) and Zola Budd (embroiled in a collision with American star, Mary Decker Slaney, in the LA Olmypic Women's 5K final while running barefoot) showed us that. But I and many other runners at my level and era would routinely run barefooted strides on grassy surfaces at the end of our workouts and use minimally supportive racing flats to do faster speed workouts on the track/roads/trails as well as to race.
I even changed my gait out of necessity (ala the Salazar - Ritzenheim experiment) when enrolling back into school on a track scholarship after having evolved into a heal striker due to years of higher and slower mileage as a road racer and marathoner while serving time in the US Coast Guard. Without a doubt, my return to being a mid-foot striker enhanced my running speed and eventually contributed to whatever successes I enjoyed as a runner during college and after graduation and my return to road racing - but it was a return to my more natural and original gait. I was still young enough at 24 years of age to make the transition back and while I forced the issue by learning to take a longer stride (the essence of running faster), I naturally rose back up to a more erect running stature with a "push-off" stride rather than a sitting-back pulling stride (which is exactly the kind of stride Salazar employed during most of his illustrious but injury-abbreviated career) I believe he has stated that he believes that his running mechanics limited the successes he might have enjoyed - and thus his near-obsession with Dathan's stride change. (But Dathan has already run the second fastest 5K ever by an American with his "plodders" stride - just as had Al during his era with an American record in the 10K).
A runner's natural gait is like his/her signature. It can be changed and improved upon if the need is determined, but it must be done gradually and never with a goal of any dramatic change - only slight modifications. In the meantime - to paraphrase Randy Newman, "you can keep your shoes on"!