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Barefoot Running For The Rest Of Us

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

All across the United States, and even beyond our borders, runners are asking a question that few runners used to ask themselves: Should I run barefoot? There are, of course, many barefoot runners who think every runner should run barefoot, but it’s best to consider the source and give this opinion as much credence as the chiropractor’s judgment that everyone needs regular spinal adjustments.

The truthful answer to the question of whether you should run barefoot is that it depends. An impartial review of the pros and cons of barefoot running suggests that there are three types of runners who should run barefoot. I recommend that you make a full conversion to barefoot running if and only if:

1. You really want to be a barefoot runner, not because it will magically make you injury-proof forevermore (it won’t), but because you just like the idea or feeling of barefoot running, or because you want to belong to the barefoot running community, or because some other non-rational (emotional, social, spiritual) reason to run barefoot has caught your fancy.

There is a cost associated with making a full switch to barefoot running. To do it successfully you basically have to hit the “rest” button and start over as a runner. Runners who try to switch from shod to barefoot running in any way other than very slowly are doomed to get injured, sometimes seriously. (An acquaintance who manages a running specialty store tells me a woman hobbled into the shop recently with two calcaneal stress fractures resulting from an experiment in barefoot running.) In principle, most runners can eventually leave their shoes behind, but what are they getting in return for that investment? Perhaps a modest reduction in overall injury risk, and almost certainly no gain in performance. Hmmm.

2. You always get injured in all types of running shoes, you’re desperate and have nothing to lose, and barefoot running is the only thing you haven’t tried.

Because barefoot running is extremely disruptive and carries its own risks, it should be approached as a solution to injury problems only after less extreme measures have been exhausted.

3. You do all of your running on sand or grass.

The first human runners may have run barefoot, but they didn’t do it on asphalt. I believe that the human body is “tuned” to run barefoot on grass and packed dirt. That’s why it feels good. Roads and tracks are much harder surfaces, and I believe a little shoe cushioning is needed to bring these surfaces back in tune (literally, in terms of the vibration frequencies of the impact forces that pass through the tissues of the lower extremities) with the body. In other words, running in (fairly minimal) shoes on tracks and roads is roughly equivalent to running barefoot on a golf course or the beach.

If you fit any of the above three descriptions, god bless you. Donate your shoes to shoe4africa, because African runners love shoes, and run free. The rest of us, however, should stick to running in shoes most of the time. More explicitly, do not attempt a full conversion to barefoot running if:

1. You are content with your current running shoes, or with conventional running shoes generally.

This is in accordance with the principle of not fixing what ain’t broke. Fixing what ain’t broke is always dangerous in a high-impact activity like running.

2. You are a serious competitive runner.

Every elite track and road racer in the world today trains primarily and races exclusively in shoes. This includes the East Africans, who necessarily run barefoot as children but switch to shod running at their first opportunity and never look back. Why? I think it’s mainly because they are simply more comfortable in shoes. And why are they more comfortable in shoes? Is it because they’re wusses? No, it’s because running in shoes is less stressful on their legs. And because running in shoes is less stressful on their legs, they can run more. And because they can run more, they can get fitter and race faster.

There is a lot of money and glory at stake at the highest level of the sport of distance running. If going shoeless offered an advantage, elite runners would do it.

3. You are more comfortable running in any kind of running shoe than you are running barefoot.

This matter of comfort is crucial. Research by Benno Nigg at the University of Calgary has shown that runners are more economical and have less chance of getting injured when they run in the most comfortable shoes available to them. The body is intelligent. The feeling of comfort in a shoe is your body’s way of telling you that the shoe is not harming you by forcing your joints out of their preferred movement patterns or by forcing your muscles to be excessively active in dampening shock. The theory that barefoot running is more natural than shod running is appealing, but sensation trumps theory. Unless you feel more comfortable running barefoot on your normal running surfaces than you do in shoes, you are actually running more naturally (that is, the way your body wants to run) in shoes.

Just yesterday, while driving home from work, I saw a guy running barefoot on the sidewalk. He looked uncomfortable in the extreme, as though he was running on hot coals. You see people do the craziest things in defiance of their senses when they get an idée fixe in their heads. Like drinking poison Kool-Aid.

Not All or Nothing

Running shoes are not all good. While almost nobody heel strikes barefoot, four out of five runners become heel strikers in shoes. This distortion introduces a huge initial impact shock on foot strike that the legs must absorb, and has a performance-killing braking effect, increases ground contact time, and reduces joint stability. Shoes also add weight to the foot and alter stride mechanics in ways that reduce running efficiency compared to barefoot running. And habitually wearing shoes weakens the muscles of the foot and lower leg.

On the other hand, as I stated above, switching to barefoot running as a means of addressing these effects of wearing shoes is a major undertaking that carries its own risks and whose payoff in terms of reduced injury risk may be only marginal. But does it have to be all or nothing? Do runners have no choice but to live with either the shortcomings of running in shoes or the shortcomings of running barefoot? Thankfully not. It is possible to have the best of both worlds by following these three guidelines.

1. Wear the least running shoe that’s most comfortable for you.

Again, the best running shoe for you is the most comfortable one. But there’s more than one running shoe on the market that you can run comfortably in, so, with the advantages of barefoot running in mind, choose the lightest shoe with the least structure and cushioning that does not sacrifice comfort. This will minimize the drawbacks of shod running. For example, I run in Nike Free 3.0’s and Nike LunaRacers, both of which are actually lighter than the Vibram foot wrappings that many “barefoot” runners wear!

2. Do a little barefoot running.

Recently I had an opportunity to study Kara Goucher’s training logs. In them I found a small smattering of barefoot running. Once or twice a week Goucher runs a mile or two barefoot on grass as a cooldown after a workout. Doing so strengthens her feet and lower leg muscles so that she can then use them in her shoes the way full-time barefoot runners always use those muscles.

How much barefoot running is enough? I recommend that you very gradually build up to doing enough barefoot running so that it doesn’t cause soreness in your lower legs the next morning. That’s a good sign that it has had the desired strengthening effect. A few miles per week should do the trick. Unless you live close to the beach or on your own private golf course, I think the best place to practice barefoot running is actually on a treadmill, which is a lot more pliant a surface than the road and in that respect much more like the surfaces our ancestors ran barefoot on.

3. Deal with your heel strike, one way or another.

The thorniest issue is the heel strike introduced into the strides of 80 percent of runners by their shoes. What’s weird is that it’s the most naturally gifted 20 percent of runners who automatically remain midfoot and forefoot strikers even when clodhoppers are placed on their feet. I have no idea why this is so, but whatever the reason is, this special minority of runners are lucky, because they get to enjoy the advantages of shoes without having to find ways to undo footwear’s biggest drawback.

The reason the heel strike is such a thorny problem for the rest of us is that heel striking is, in fact, the natural way for us to run in shoes. Therefore, it’s very difficult to correct the problem by consciously forcing a midfoot landing in shoes. You might think that switching to more minimal shoes would make it a little easier, but honestly I have found that I can still heel strike in my Nike Frees. You might also think that running a few miles per week barefoot would teach your body different movement patterns that would then bleed over into your shod running, but this seldom works, either. Your body doesn’t need to be taught to land on the midfoot when running. It simply naturally does that when you’re shoeless and equally naturally adopts a heel strike when you put shoes on.

So, how can you address the heel strike issue without going 100 percent barefoot? While consciously retraining your gait is difficult and fraught, I believe it’s worth the effort for many runners. Generally I am not a big fan of forced stride changes, but I make an exception for heel strike correction. Like all consciously made stride changes, this one will probably make you less efficient for a while, and it may never stick, but overall I think it’s actually less disruptive to the flow of the average runner’s training than going barefoot.

The other thing you can do is try some of the common measures runners use to address the consequences of heel striking. For example, lifting weights to increase your muscle strength (and with it the stability of your joints) is likely to reduce the number of injuries you suffer as a result of heel striking. And, dare I say it, getting fitted for prescription orthotics may also help by managing the excessive foot pronation that is caused by heel striking.

Sometimes in life you can’t go backwards, and the best you can do is to find the best way forward from where you are.


Check it Matt’s latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.