Barefoot Running: Ditch Your Shoes, Change Your Gait, An Honest Look at a Tired Debate

Peter with Chris McDougall at the Hat 50k in 2011

The theme for last week here on the dailymile Blog was barefoot running. It’s odd, therefore, that my initial thought was to write a post reviewing my recent experience with four minimalist trail shoes. In mulling things over, I decided to switch things up a bit and write a post that is more true to the theme of the week. Barefoot running does not involve running in shoes. Period. “Barefoot running shoes” is an oxymoron. Period. Barefoot running is different, and it deserves to be treated as such.

Ever since Christopher McDougall published his book “Born to Run,” the running world has been awash with debates about barefoot running. The media has fueled the fire, and seemingly every newspaper in the country has published an article where they trot out a barefoot runner and a podiatrist and let them go at it about the benefits and risks of running sans shoes. Personally, I find these debates tiresome, and the same old arguments keep getting thrown out over and over again. “Abebe Bikilia won a marathon barefoot!!!” “Yeah, but he ran faster in shoes the next time!!!” Such arguments follow a predictable course, and some people will never change their opinions on the subject, particularly the most ardent of the pro- and anti- barefoot running camps.

A simple glance at the feet of runners at the starting line of any race makes it clear that running shoe companies need have no fear of the barefoot running movement sweeping their profits away as runners shed their shoes en masse. Quite honestly, not that many people are running barefoot full-time. The reasons are many – for some, like me, it’s simple practicality. I live in New Hampshire, and for about 4-5 months of the year the ground is covered with snow and/or ice. Barefoot running is simply not possible under such conditions. For others it may be self-consciousness – the thought of scooting around barefoot is just too much of a social abnormality for them to imagine doing it. Whatever the reason, barefoot running will never become the norm in this day and age.

The above being said, I would encourage every runner to try running barefoot at least once. Humans evolved running barefoot, and we’re born without shoes on our feet – running without shoes is the human default. In the spirit of McDougall’s great book, if you want to feel how you were “Born to Run,” simply take off your shoes and go for a short jog. Or hop on the treadmill for a few minutes. I’ll guarantee that it will feel different, and you’ll probably notice your foot contacting the ground on the fat pad behind the base of the pinky toe rather than on the heel (commonly called a “forefoot strike”). This change in gait happens automatically – your feet sense and interact with the surface underneath, and adjust your stride on the fly. I recently did this simple shoe/no-shoe experiment with three students in my Exercise Physiology class – one commented that her immediate gait changet was “like magic!” Not magic really, just our amazingly intricate nervous system doing its thing to control how we deal with impact. Your feet know how to run, it’s just that the message gets garbled when you put on shoes. Running in shoes changes our form, and there are plenty of scientific studies now that demonstrate this.

Running barefoot is different. Is it better? Is it worse? Does it even matter? These are all questions that scientists are now scrambling to answer. We know that running barefoot reduces impact loading (how fast the foot absorbs ground impact), and that high impact loading rates are correlated with some types of injury (e.g., stress fractures). Anecdotes abound of runners who have adopted barefoot-style running overcoming chronic pain in places like their knees and hips. Conversely, other runners who have gone barefoot or to ultraminimal shoes have suffered stress fractures in their feet, often because they do too much too soon without allowing time for their bones to adapt to the new stresses they experience. The latter argues strongly for a gradual approach. We can also assume that barefoot running increases risk of damage from stepping on something sharp underfoot. It may be rare, as is often stated by full-time barefoot runners, but the risk is real. We really have little idea whether barefoot running might make you faster or more efficient.

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The big question is whether there is a middle ground. Can we take what we have learned from those who run barefoot, or incorporate a bit of barefoot running into our own training so that we can reap some of the benefits that are involved. For example, running barefoot can be a great way to work on your form and strengthen your legs and feet. One of the few things that almost all students of running form agree upon is that overstriding is bad. Landing with the foot way out in front with an extended knee (and usually a pronounced heel strike) causes braking, which can slow you down. It can also result in impact stress being absorbed by the bones rather than the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc.) of the legs and feet. If you’re an overstrider and want to kick the habit, doing a bit of barefoot work is one of the best ways to get a feel for what a shorter stride feels like. You don’t need to do it full-time – even strides at the end of a normal shod run could help – this is common practice for many track and cross-country runners.

Whichever strategy you take, a gradual approach is necessary, and going out and running several miles barefoot on your first try is risky and unwise. I personally have run up to two miles barefoot on the road (smooth, hard asphalt is my favorite “barefoot” surface), and still run barefoot on my basement treadmill from time to time. I don’t do it often, but I find that it always reminds me what my body was meant to be doing, and this can then be translated back into my shod life. I can’t say that I’m any faster or more injury-proof as a result, but my legs feel stronger and the feeling you get when running barefoot can be quite liberating.

At the end of the day, whether you decide to try running barefoot is totally up to you. I was a skeptic for an awfully long time, but like I always tell my kids when they express horror at eating some new type of food put before them on the dinner plate: “Just try it, you might like it!” Who knows, you might even get interviewed by a newspaper and debate a podiatrist…

About Peter L.

I'm a dad to three little kids, small college anatomy/physiology professor, distance and dog running fanatic, blogger (http://www.runblogger.com), dailymile Team member, and gear/shoe junkie from NH.
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