As kids we think nothing of dashing around barefoot in the summer. We’re footloose, fancy-free, and unfazed by anything that may stand in our way. But at some point, things change and we find ourselves automatically reaching for a pair of shoes before we head out the door.
The fitness shoe industry is booming. There are shoes specifically designed for tennis, aerobics, basketball, soccer, walking, and running. There are stability shoes, motion control shoes, and neutral shoes. There are shoes with cushioning and minimalist shoes without. You name it and there is a shoe for it. But do we really need all of these options? New research suggests that perhaps we’ve gone too far.
Humans spent millions of years wandering the earth barefoot before shoes were invented. Some people believe that our body’s natural alignment and gait patterns depend upon being barefoot and that once we place a shoe on the foot, we throw the whole system off. In fact, research indicates that cushioned, high-heeled running shoes may be doing more harm than good.1
In a study conducted at Harvard University, researchers compared barefoot runners with those in shoes and found significant differences in their running patterns. The runners in shoes tended to heel-strike, meaning the impact of each step was absorbed first in the heel—similar to putting the brakes on. Barefoot runners, on the other hand, tended to land with a lighter step toward the front of the foot. Runners in shoes experienced higher impact and lower efficiency in their gait, whereas barefoot runners tended to lower their center of gravity (by bending their knees and ankles more), consequently reducing their impact. Barefoot runners were also more “compliant,” meaning they adjusted their stride and leg stiffness depending on the running surface.
Based on the results of the study, the researchers speculated that running shoes (and the subsequent reliance on arch support and stiff soles) might actually weaken foot muscles and arch strength, leading to excessive pronation and potential injuries.
Running shoes may be comfortable, but they limit our ability to feel the ground. In fact, scientists assert that when we go barefoot, we actually receive information through our feet regarding the terrain and this information helps us to navigate without injury.
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Although the science is beginning to emerge to support barefoot running, the practice is not for everyone. However, runners who heel strike or who have experienced shin splints or plantar fasciitis (heel pain) may want to consider it. Any runner who has been plagued by injuries knows the frustration of being benched; barefoot running may be a viable solution or at least a step in the right direction.
If barefoot running seems too daunting, there are some other options. Minimalist running refers to the use of the most minimal covering you can use on your foot without leaving it completely naked. The most popular example of minimal shoes are the Vibram FiveFingers, which are similar to toe socks with a more substantial sole.
If minimalist running still seems like too much of a stretch, many runners are turning to natural running. Natural running refers to running that relies on footwear that is similar to a typical running shoe, but is designed to replicate the biomechanics of the bare foot. Natural footwear still provides the shoe construction and cushioning of running shoes. The most popular examples of natural footwear include the Nike Free and Newton running shoes, which are designed to encourage a mid- to forefoot strike.
Transitioning to Barefoot, Minimalist, or Natural Running
After spending years in shoes, our feet become accustomed to the new gait patterns caused by the shoes. Transitioning to barefoot is not as simple as kicking off your shoes and going for a jog. It’s important to give your body time to adjust. The muscles in our feet and lower legs have essentially been on vacation during their shoe-wearing days so we have to build slowly.
If you decide to try barefoot or minimal running (or walking), the experts recommend starting with five minutes at a time for several weeks before gradually increasing the amount of time you spend barefoot. They suggest taking at least three months to make the transition.
1 Lieberman DE, Venkadesan M, Werbel WA, et al. Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature. 2010; 463: 531-535.