Barefoot running: get naked!

A friend recently sent me a wicked book to help me get through my injury/recovery time: Barefoot Running – The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila (by Paul Rambali). It got me thinking though, what is the deal with this barefoot running thing? I’ve heard a little bit about it, talked about it, and even tried it… But I still don’t know – is barefoot running just another fad, reserved for hippies, Nike-haters, and runners too cheap to buy shoes? Or is barefoot running actually legit??  I decided to investigate! Yup, just call me Ultrarunnergirl P.I.

What is Barefoot Running?

Barefoot running is running without shoes on – in bare feet (I bet you’re glad I clarified that one). Although it has only recently emerged onto the ‘mainstream’ running scene, running with naked feet has been around on the fringe for decades. Modern running shoes weren’t created until the 1970s and before then, shoes were thin-soled and simple. As psychedelic and outlandish as the fashion was (and aren’t we glad that’s over), shoe designs were just the opposite. But as the sports shoe industry ballooned, so did the shoes!  Air cushions, wavy plastic springs, fancy stitching, flashing lights, built-up heels and padding, padding and more padding. These days, running shoes are to feet what DD bras are to the pre-pubescent girl – completely unnecessary and filled with excessive padding and support. We’ve been taught to believe that our feet are delicate and fragile and we need  corrective footwear to run properly. Well, sitting here in this surgical foot two and a half weeks after foot surgery, I’m tempted to agree. These little piggys like to be fully dressed when they go to the market and aren’t so keen on the naked approach. Don’t we need shoes to protect our feet and joints?

Well, according to some, no. In a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (2009), Volume 43, Issue 3, Dr. C Richards from the University of Newcastle, Australia, reported that there are no evidence -based studies to show that running shoes reduce injury. His review of the literature suggests that the notion we need cushioned heels and special support in our shoes to be able to run long distances safely and effectively is not fueled by scientific studies, but rather by the profit-hungry shoe industry. In fact, he challenged the shoe companies to produce evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of running shoes in reducing injuries… but to my knowledge, no such studies have surfaced.

Barefoot runners advocate shedding those clunky shoes in favour of minimalist or no footwear as a way of preventing injuries. Hmm, sounds circumspect. Ultrarunnergirl P.I. thought she should investigate further.

What is the rationale behind this crazy idea?

Supporters of barefoot running (the feet nudists, as I like to call them) claim that we are designed to run au naturel. Research by Harvard Professor Dr. Lieberman (and others) indicates that early humans were capable of running quite comfortably barefoot or with little footwear. How? By landing forefoot (on the ball of the foot) or midfoot (landing flat).

You see, when most of us run, we heel strike. In fact, 75 % of us hit the ground with our heel first, transfer weight onto the midfoot, and then push off the forefoot last. But try doing that without shoes on and without the benefit of all that DD padding… OUCH!!!  But according to Dr. Lieberman’s research, we may only be heel striking because our padded shoes allow us to do so – in other words, our shoes may encourage running in a way that we aren’t meant to.

The visual research is pretty telling. From Dr. Lieberman’s website, take a look at the stride of a Kenyan adolescent who has never worn shoes in his life:

But yet if you stick a barefoot runner in a pair of shoes and even he/she will start to heel strike.Modern running shoes have approximately twice as much padding in the heel as in the toe of the shoe. Twice – just take a minute and think about how that alters the angle of the foot from its natural state. We have been running around in high heels and we didn’t even know it. With our feet angled forward by running shoes, it becomes much easier to heel strike than try to angle forward to land on the toe.

So why do we need to pay attention to foot strike and the effect that shoes have on the way our feet land on the ground? Dr. Lieberman explains:

“By landing on the middle or front of the foot, barefoot runners have almost no impact collision, much less than most shod runners generate when they heel-strike.Modern running shoes interfere with our natural running form and change the way our feet interact with the ground, which is to our detriment.”

Look at the relative impact forces of barefoot running versus shod (“shoe-d”) running:

Further, simply by wearing extra padding in normal running shoes, we may even be subconsciously landing harder on the ground in compensation. Robins and Gouw (1990) concluded that modern running shoes “provide poor protection” from running-related injuries, and further, that they may lead to “chronic overloading” (Robbins S.E., Gouw G.J. “Athletic footwear and chronic overloading: a brief review.” Sports Medicine (1990). Volume 9). Similarly, researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Canada found that when gymnasts landed on soft surfaces, they actually landed with more force than when they landed on hard surfaces in order to gain more stability.

Alright, I’m starting to be convinced that there is some merit to this barefoot running thing. But I know that not all of the research is so positive.

Do we know enough about barefoot running yet to really know if it is beneficial?

Vin Lananna, Director of track and field for the University of Oregon and seven-time NCAA Coach of the Year, said “I can’t prove this, but I believe when my runners train barefoot, they run faster and suffer fewer injuries.”

Dr. Lieberman’s (and gang’s) research seems to indicate that naked feet are the way to go. Whether barefoot or in shoes, forefront or mid-foot strikes in running do not generate the same nasty impact forces as when you heel strike, and most runners in standard shoes will heel strike whereas barefoot runners land forefoot or midfoot. But Dr. Lieberman is quick to point out that there is no study to show that heel strikes contribute more to injury than forefoot strikes. Yes, they produce more forces, but no one has yet proven that more forces lead to injury.

Some researchers do toe the party line that cushioned, running shoes prevent injuries, but much of this research is either dated or based on the unproven assumption that shock-absorbing shoes equal injury prevention. For instance, in 1990, Cook et al. concluded that “shoes providing cushioning, support and stability can play an important role in shock absorption, and as a consequence injury prevention.” (“Running Shoes: The relationship to running injuries.” Sports Medicine (1990). Volume 10, Issue 1). Similarly, C.A.M. Johnston et. al. reported in 2003 that “running shoes should be replaced after 500 to 700 km because they lose their shock-absorbing qualities” (“Preventing Running Injuries: A Practical Approach for Family Doctors.” Canadian Family Physician (2003). Volume 49, Issue 9).

So what can we conclude from this? The research supporting the benefits of barefoot running is promising, but more research needs to be done (see Michael Warburton, Sportscience 5(3), sportsci.org/jour/0103/mw.htm and  Caroline Burge, Sportscience 5(3), sportsci.org/jour/0103/cb.htm). At any rate, I’ve read enough to be convinced that I should give it a shot.

If I am going to try barefoot running, what precautions should I take?

Just because barefoot running might be better for us, it doesn’t mean that you can ditch the bra – I mean shoes – forever and go out for a nice long run. Oh no. Running barefoot requires additional calf strength and muscle control, so the switch should be done gradually to allow your feet and legs time to adjust.

Once I’m back to training and my foot is healed, I plan to incorporate barefoot running into my training a lot more. Perhaps at least one or two 10k runs per week. But more on that to come in other posts…

For now, I hope this has been informative and I welcome your comments!!

FAMOUS BAREFOOT ATHLETES

Adebe Bikila (Ethiopia)

Zola Budd-Pieterse (South Africa)


Categories: Practical Advice, Training

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5 Comments »

  1. Great post! If you haven’t already, check out the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. Very entertaining read w/ a heavy minimalist emphasis.

    I have just (the past 3 weeks) started incorporating runs in Vibrams (yes I bought the Vibrams) on the treadmill a couple times a week. So far I feel the biggest benefit is that running in the Vibrams has showed/taught me how to land my foot in my runners. Running this way has had several other effects, but 3 weeks is not enough time for me to be spouting off just yet.

    Good luck w/ the barefoot running!

  2. Thanks! Glad you liked it. I’ve got some Vibrams myself, which I have mainly used for pool running. After I get in some more mileage, I’ll do a post (and a product review) on this blog. Keep me posted on your progress!

  3. The other book to read is:

    Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

    The author converts to barefoot running then runs an ultra marathon, 40 miles I think, with some of the best ultra marathoners in the world and a local tribe of Tarahumara runners in the remote Mexican Copper Canyons. I am a non runner and it makes me want to run barefoot.

  4. Hi Steph, nice post. There is a growing community of barefoot and Vibram converts in Aus — check out the threads on http://www.coolrunning.com.au. Just last Sunday I ran 42km on some local trails with a group of ultrarunners, one of whom was sporting his Vibrams and hasn’t worn conventional running shoes for 3 years. He swears by the change!

    One caveat however is that you don’t see too many of the elite athletes running barefoot these days. I guess most of the world best times for races on the track and road are run in fairly minimalistic flats that don’t have too much in the way of padding and don’t prop the heel up too high. Would be interesting to know these guys and girls wear flats for the bulk of their training — I am guessing not!
    Best wishes for a speedy recovery. Keen to hear about your progress and your experiences with barefoot running.
    Cheers,
    Pete.

  5. Hi Stephanie, I enjoyed reading your post on barefoot running. I’ve started to experiment with it over the past couple of weeks. I think that there are definitely some benefits to it, but it is still too early to draw any conclusions. I haven’t run more than 1/2 mile actually barefoot – on the relatively smooth asphalt, as my feet are still too tender to try more. I have run as much as 15 miles on hilly trails, with all strikes on my forefoot as though I was barefoot. It has brought new life back to my running as I now have new natural spring to my stride as well as it forces me to run with less pact, which has to be better for my joints, which will hopefully add more years to my running:-). I don’t think it is practical to resort solely to barefoot running. There are just too many sharp objects that can cause damage, especially when it is wet out, which will soften even the toughest foot pads. Wearing Vibrams or some other minimalist shoes is probably the best solution.

    Ke

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