The Barefoot Trend: Professional Runners Race Toward Minimalist Shoes
Posted by Jenn F. on Monday, January 28th, 2013
The argument makes intuitive sense: we evolved without shoes. Because of this, shoes only serve to alter our natural gait, something that millions of years have shaped to be maximally efficient and effective. Therefore, professional runners should ditch those bulky, cushioned trainers for the bare minimum: shoes that will protect the soles without altering the foot’s natural contact with the ground. I must admit that I’m skeptical about “barefoot” running. Sure, I see the logic of it, but I also see the injuries: stress fractures, puncture wounds, worn cartilage, and fallen arches. Are these a consequence of the minimalist shoes or is it something else? Are there other ways barefoot running might protect the feet and joints? Let’s explore the controversy.
Our ancestors didn’t run on pavement. This is always my first hesitation but, in truth, the body adjusts to increased impact by switching to a forefoot or midfoot strike, and by adjusting leg stiffness (this isn’t something you have to do consciously, it’s something your body should do automatically as you run.) So, pavement doesn’t end up being more damaging than grass. Besides, our ancestors probably ran on a variety of surfaces, including rock and tightly packed earth.
Running “barefoot” will cause injury. It seems to make sense but the data doesn’t back up this assumption. Barefoot runners (or runners who wear minimalist shoes) don’t seem to get injured more often. In fact, though the science is still inconclusive, there does seem to be some protective benefit to running this way. As the foot feels the ground, the body adjusts to the contour of the surface. Foot, calf, and thigh muscles grow accustomed to these constant minute adjustments. They get stronger. As we know, stronger lower body muscles often correlate with fewer injuries, especially injuries like stress fractures and twisted ankles. And, healthy running does seem to be about technique. If running barefoot influences that technique in a positive way (forefoot and midfoot over heel strikes), we may be on to something.
But where should I run? If you’re a professional runner, you’ll run where the races happen. This means you don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. While tracks may be ideal for the track star, if you’re a marathoner, city streets may not be as welcoming (beware of pebbles, metal pieces, glass, etc.) However, professionals do have control over where they train. Choose smooth surfaces and run in the daytime so you can watch for debris. And remember, hardness/softness doesn’t much matter. Barefoot runners adjust their gait to compensate.
Who shouldn’t run barefoot? Any professional with a foot injury or with numbness in his feet should avoid barefoot or “barefoot” running. If you can’t feel the road, you can’t compensate for its contours. This can be dangerous. Similarly, you should always wear protective shoes in cold weather.
If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. Dr. Josef J. Geldwert, Dr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.