When the weather is nice, people seem to hit the sidewalks, streets, trails and parks for a good run. It’s a good form of exercise, with about 100 calories burned per mile. Besides breathing air and blinking, walking and running are some of the most natural activities that an able-bodied human being is designed to do. Just think – babies learn to walk on their own, with no formal instruction needed – it’s something that our bodies are perfectly engineered for.
Biologically, the human foot is made precisely to propel the body forward. Barefoot running gurus believe that when the sole of the foot meets the ground in the way that it was naturally designed to do, the body instantly interprets the way that the foot is interacting with the ground using the nerves and muscles in the foot. This allows the body to adjust the stride perfectly to fit the terrain. Theoretically, this should help improve running technique and prevent injury. It’s a system based on feedback. If there is pain in the sole when you’re running barefoot, then your foot is telling you that you’re not running in the most efficient manner so that you can adjust to run more gently. When a runner is wearing modern running shoes, these signals generated by the interaction of the foot with the ground are muted or silenced by the shoe.
Barefoot Versus Modern Shoes:
A Harvard running study compared endurance runners who use a modern running shoe with barefoot runners. The study found that the experienced barefoot runners tend to use a mid-foot or forefoot strike, allowing these individuals to avoid landing on the heel.
Because modern running shoes often have a built-up, cushioned heel, runners who wear shoes are more likely to land on the heel. This style of heel-landing produces a sudden, forceful impact on the body with each stride. For this reason, it is postulated that wearing heel-heavy running shoes may pose a greater risk of injury than wearing no shoes at all.
Minimalist running shoes (also called barefoot shoes) are designed to provide a very small degree of padding and protection from the elements, while mimicking the shape of the foot. This promotes the forefoot or mid-foot strike style while protecting the tissues on the bottom of the foot from rough terrain.
Runners looking to transition from using a modern shoe to minimalist shoes or barefoot running should be careful to ease into the change. Walking or running in new minimalist shoes should be done for short stretches of time when a runner first switches over to avoid injury.
Criticisms of Barefoot Running:
Barefoot and minimalist running is not without its critics. A study of 37 runners conducted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that heel-striking (the type of striking encouraged by modern running shoes) is more economical than mid-foot or forefoot striking. The study found that heel-striking runners required less oxygen while running at the same rate as fore-foot strikers. Heel-heavy runners also burned carbohydrates at a slower rate. Because carbohydrate stores provide energy, these runners could theoretically run for longer lengths of time without “hitting a wall.”
Experts have advised runners to run in whatever manner works the best for them. If a runner feels comfortable and doesn’t experience any injuries, they are generally advised to stick with their program.
I switched to minimalist shoes (barefoot-style Merrills) about two years ago. An informational pamphlet that came with the shoes advised transitioning slowly to avoid injury. I walked around in the shoes for about a day, and started with a few short runs, and I was running 5-mile trails in my Merrills within about a week. The shoes helped me to shorten my stride, improve my posture and help me to run longer distances. At first the increased strain on my calves and the arch of my foot was very apparent, but my muscles soon strengthened and adjusted to the new stride.
I always recommend minimalist or barefoot shoes to people, with the disclaimer that I’m not an endurance runner by any means. My usual routine includes a couple of 2-3 mile runs a week. To me, it makes the most sense to run the way that my body was designed to run.
Comment below with your thoughts on barefoot/minimalist running versus using modern running shoes!