2016 saw the revitalisation of the barefoot running debate, with more shoe retailers than ever bringing out their own take on barefoot running shoes. This newest craze of running “the way nature intended” may not be all that it seems with many of the risks of barefoot running and minimal shoes going unnoticed.
The debate and research continue to grow, even in 2017, and build arguments for and against running shod (with shoes) or unshod (barefoot). So let’s have a better look at some of the research supporting the pros and cons of running barefoot and using minimal shoes. The most important issues surrounding both arguments in this article are focused on safety, running economy, speed and oxygen consumption (V02).
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A recent study by Hanson, et al. reported that running in shoes required greater levels of oxygen than running barefoot. The study revealed that running barefoot required 2.0% less V02 than running shod on a treadmill. However, this difference is not statistically significant on its own, which is overall consistent with literature in other studies. The research into oxygen consumption shod versus barefoot is limited, other studies such as Bellar and Judge 2015 also suggest that running in shoes requires more oxygen that running barefoot or in minimalist footwear.
Squadrone and Gallozzi discovered that ground time was shorter when running barefoot by 0.01 seconds, which throughout a training session can make a very large difference. They also discovered that stride length was lower whilst stride frequency was higher, resulting in the step time being significantly lower compared to using shoes.
Another study by Divert, et al. compared running in shoes to barefoot using 35 participants which supports Squadrone and Gallozzi’s study through their results of a lower contact and flight time, and a higher pre-activation of calf muscles.
The conclusion of these studies highlights how barefoot running can lead to a reduction in the mechanical stress which occurs through repetitive steps. However further studies into barefoot running, such as Lieberman, et al. have highlighted the way in which running barefoot changes the posture and mechanics of running entirely. These changes can greatly increase the chance of plantar fasciitis, stress fractures or other running related injuries.
Potential Benefits of Barefoot Running
- There is some evidence to support that muscles,tendons
and ligaments of the foot are strengthened by running barefoot, and it allows you to develop a more natural gait.
- By removing the heel lift in most shoes, it helps to stretch the Achilles tendon and calf muscles to help reduce the risks of shin splints and other related injuries.
- Removing the heel lift will also aid runners in developing better balance and proprioception. Barefoot running activates the smaller muscles in the feet, ankles and lower legs which support better balance, coordination and increases the control of leg and foot movements.
- Not only does running barefoot have potential to improve balance, but it also supports you in becoming more grounded. By this I mean it helps you spread your toes and ‘plant’ your feet to achieve a better grounding in order to achieve a wide range of other movements.
Potential Negatives of Barefoot Running
- Minimal shoes and barefoot runningchanges
the way in which a runner plants their feet on the ground, this means that there is a greater chance of injury as the muscles have not been trained to absorb the shock from the ground in the same way.
- Running in shoes absorbs a lot of the shock from when the foot strikes the ground, but removing this barrier, theshin
is required to absorb more of the shock increasing the risk of shin splints.
- Running barefoot also changes the way in which the muscles are used, although this means that smaller muscles in the feet are also activated, running barefoot risks overworking muscles which aren’t normally used or are used in a different motion, which increases injury risks.
- Shoes offer more protection from ground debris such as glass,rocks
and thorns which can cause infection or further damage to the soles of the feet.
- Shoes also provide insulation from the elements, therefore if you live in a country whereweather
changes rapidly, or seasons are more prevalent, running barefoot increases your risk of frostbite from the ice and snow.
- The plantar surface (bottom of your foot) is normally soft and tender, running barefoot puts pressure on the tender parts of your feet which can cause plantar pain, or in more severe cases increase the risk of plantar fasciitis.
- Running barefoot will also cause a higher number of blisters as the feet build up a barrier to the ground – once the blisters have decreased, barefoot runners will notice their feet are much tougher than they were previously due to the callouses forming on the bottom of their feet.
The Final Word
There is still a lot of gaps and contradictory evidence surrounding barefoot and shod running, and until more conclusive evidence is revealed, it is difficult to determine the definite pros and cons to barefoot styles. This being said, if you do choose to begin running barefoot or using minimalist shoes, remember to start slowly and be careful in adapting your training routine to allow your feet to acclimatize to this new form of running. It is also important to focus on your running form to reduce the risk of injury.
Running shoes have advanced in their development to provide support, structure, and protection for your feet when training and running, therefore, in my opinion, choosing to run without the support available increases your risk of injury unnecessarily. The benefits from running barefoot that have been discovered so far, are vastly outweighed by the risks of injury, especially due to the benefits being available through other means of training, such as gymnastics, balance training, or strength training.