The first thing to note with barefoot running style, is that it is actually performed without shoes. Barefoot running is something that children do when they run around without shoes and it is also common in poorer countries where shoes are a luxury. Minimalist running uses barefoot shoes that are new to the running shoe market. Any form of footwear negates the function of barefoot running because there is a sole between the foot and the ground.
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Barefoot running shoes have been designed to enhance the running experience and bring people back to their natural state without the external padding that modern shoes offer. Yet, these shoes do not replace the sensation of running without shoes, but it would not be practical to run a trail run or marathon on hot tar or through thorny bush.
Barefoot shoes have been created to protect the foot from outside dangers, but still bring the runner close to the ground to feel every step. This eliminates the pain of standing in a thorn, but it also adds feeling to every step. Many people are wearing barefoot shoes for everyday use and as part of fashion. Barefoot shoes prevent tiredness in the legs and it is much more comfortable than high heels or boots. The minimalist shoe market is growing and it is highly fashionable as well as being functional.
What is barefoot running?
Scientists have examined runners from African decent and athletes who run without shoes and then designed shoe around their style of running to provide enough support without compromising kinaesthetic awareness.
These athletes were barefoot runners and the modern runner tries to mimic their gait and efficiency with minimalist running. This concept is based on the fact that humans spent thousands of years running around barefoot through fields and forests before the increase in jogging popularity and the running shoe market that arose from the sport.
Minimalist shoes that are manufactured for barefoot running have been designed with a personalised fit that conforms to the foot size and shape. The shoe fits snugly and there is little foot movement. While it is being worn for activity, the shoe’s upper material softens and absorbs sweat without slipping and the foot can be ventilated through the ventilated mesh panels. Fungal infections are prevented through these features and it is not necessary to wear socks with minimalist shoes. This prevents friction and adds to the feeling in the foot with increased proprioception. Socks would just be a barrier between the foot, shoe and ground.
Most minimalist shoes weigh between six and ten ounces and they are much lighter than normal running shoes and this lightens the load on the runner. The other feature of minimalist running shoes is the heel-to-toe drop of four to ten millimetres and this means less heel support. The flatter sole enhances the feeling of the foot in contact with the ground that stimulates receptors in the foot. Heel support is not needed as the stress is placed on the forefoot instead. There has been much research into this type of running style and gear and scientists have identified a need for shoes with less cushioning as they may have caused some impact injuries.
With every shoe worn, the runner will adjust their gait to suit the footwear, even if it is on a subconscious level. Wearing minimalist shoes is biomechanically related to running barefoot and the sensory feedback from the plantar mechanoreceptors will change compared with running in padded shoes. Depending on the type of shoe, the stride length will vary and this may change the entire running style. More advocators of barefoot running are believers in the pose running method whereby small steps are taken in a S-like body position. This reduces the strain on the slightly bent knees as there is a forward lean from the ankles. This uses gravity instead of fighting the downward pull and the method also leads to the balls of the feet landing under the body and the feet are lifted up under the hip instead of behind the body. Although this method of running was developed by an Olympic coach in 1977, it is only being coached properly since the invention of barefoot running shoes. Barefoot runners land on the lateral part of the forefoot, instead of the heel that is used when wearing traditional running shoes. The forefoot then rolls inwards and the heel touches the ground before the forefoot pushes off into the next step.
When barefoot running is better
- Many runners can run more efficiently by employing the pose method and professional runners enjoy the change in running style that these shoes naturally promote as it less stressful on the structures of the body.
- There is less risk of chronic injuries and repetitive stress injuries that result from running in cushioned shoes and the heel strike that takes the impact.
- When the feet hit the ground directly, the impact is absorbed by the muscles in the feet and there is less strain on the plantar fascia.
- Running shoes weigh more and barefoot running reduces the energy cost by about 4% because there is less mass on the foot.
- Runners feel that they can run more comfortably when they can feel the sensation of their feet touching the ground and they are more in touch with the terrain. This is useful on trails where the runner’s reaction is required with every step.
- There is no movement friction between the shoe and foot and this prevents blisters. Money is saved on purchasing socks and there is also less washing.
- With more foot position awareness, there is more proprioception to provide feedback to the body and brain.
- Minimalist shoes try to avoid heel striking by promoting a transition to a midfoot landing pattern and that means less heel pressure. The stress is distributed more evenly through the foot.
- Less padding and cushioning will encourage calf and leg muscles to work harder.
When barefoot running is worse
- Runners with a pre-existing injury should not make the transition in shoes before adequate rehabilitation or consulting an expert. There is less support in barefoot running shoes and this may weaken the foot or cause the injury to get worse. Sturdy, cushioned shoes are required for weak ankles, Achilles tendon injury and other lower leg injuries and certain shoes and orthotics will be better suited to the runner.
- Beginners are able to use barefoot running shoes, but they should stay with a conservative running program and not extend themselves or increase distance too quickly.
- Barefoot running is ideal for trail running, but the terrain should not be littered with too much glass, sharp rocks or other debris that will damage the shoe and the foot.
- The main criticism that this is not really “barefoot running” as there is less sensory feedback from the bottom of the foot because runners are still wearing a shoe of some type. Skeptics insist that minimalist shoes and racing flats are not the same as barefoot running because the shoes will eliminate plantar surface contact and the foot is not on the ground.
- The transition places more strain on the on feet and ankles, causing calves, hamstrings and tibialis muscles to work harder and they may become overused, stressed and injured.
- Runners should keep concentrating with every step of the new running technique as it is time consuming and difficult to change gait. The new running gait is often learned incorrectly and the body cannot adjust properly.
- Famous barefoot runners have always trained without shoes and they did not really have the transition from supported footwear to minimalist footwear. Many of these barefoot runners used to run to school or could not afford shoes so it became a way of life, while modern runners have the option to buy cushioned shoes.
What type of shoes to use
There are many types of shoes on the market and barefoot shoes are one of the many choices. These shoes are prices similarly to traditional running shoes and most manufacturers offer a type of barefoot running shoe, although the first brand was the Vibram FiveFingers shoe.
Vibram shoes were designed with separate compartment for toes which are like gloves for the feet. The running shoe named after Abebe Bikila, honours the barefoot African athlete won the 1960 Olympic marathon to set a new world record. The Vibram Bikila is designed for running and has become popular among athletes and other companies have also designed running shoes for minimalist running.
Beginners should start gradually and decide whether barefoot running shoes are meant for them. Barefoot running is new to the running arena and it is recommended that runners should not change their style immediately and should consult a running coach for assistance and an external eye. There is also little research on the effects of minimalist running as it is relatively new in the running field.