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Don’t Rush to Barefoot Running

  
  
  
  

Don’t Rush to Barefoot Running

Dr. Paul Juris
 

In a trend inspired by a popular research article and a best-selling book, many runners are choosing to run without shoes or in near-barefoot shoes under the belief that traditional shoes may lead to more injuries than barefoot styles. Unfortunately, many are making the switch based more on the fad’s popularity than on solid science. In fact, no scientific studies show that traditional running shoes directly cause injury or that barefoot running reduces injuries.

Truth on Fitness Barefoot

Just as there is no easy, workout-free diet that will help you lose 30 pounds in 30 days, there is no shoe that will guarantee pain-free running. Countless factors play a role in the development of injuries in runners, including training program and history, cardiovascular fitness, musculoskeletal strength, and nutrition.

The case for barefoot running is often made on anecdotal evidence – “It worked for me, so it must work for everyone!” But there are no studies showing that barefoot running leads to a decrease in injuries. A review conducted by Cory Hofmann at the Cybex Research Institute found that studies show only that barefoot running encourages changes in biomechanical variables, as the body adapts to soften the impact of running on hard surfaces. These changes could potentially contribute to changes in athletic performance or injury rates. Potentially.

>>"While barefoot running is not inherently bad, it isn’t inherently good either."

 

While studies show that running with a barefoot style is different, for example promoting a forefoot or midfoot strike instead of a rearfoot or heel strike commonly promoted by traditional running shoes, they don’t actually prove such a style guarantees fewer or less-severe injuries. Enter the marketers, who claim that near-barefoot shoes encourage a more “natural” running style, restoring modern runners to a prehistoric age when hunters ran long distances in bare feet.

The Endurance Running Hypothesis suggests that early man survived in spite of not being able to run faster than animals because we could run longer. Problems arise when that theory is used to promote barefoot running today. For starters, early humans were likely lighter than modern day humans. And, they ran on soft grassy savannah, not concrete and asphalt, likely at significantly slower paces over longer periods of time than most modern runners.

>>"The changes in running style promoted by the barefoot approach can be made in traditional shoes with attention to form."

 

In reality, the potential for changes in athletic performance or injury rates doesn’t guarantee positive changes. For example, an increased activation of the plantar flexors, as has been found in barefoot running, could lead to greater fatigue, Achilles tendonitis, or instability in the arches. On the flip side, gradually increased activation of the plantar flexors could help the muscles strengthen over time, helping to stabilize the Achilles tendon and longitudinal arch. The bottom line: the science is unclear. Additionally, the changes in running style promoted by the barefoot approach can be made in traditional shoes with attention to form.

While barefoot running is not inherently bad, it isn’t inherently good either.  It will take a runner’s body time to adapt to the new style, just as it took time to adapt to the original shod running style. Introducing a new set of drastically different mechanical demands to an unprepared body could potentially be very harmful. Starting any new training program or running style should be done carefully, with a slow buildup of mileage and intensity to help the body adapt to the different demands of the new style.

Discerning runners would be wise to disregard the marketing lingo and instead focus on their own biomechanics, experiences, and preferences. Examining the causes of an injury is an extremely complex task, dependent on many factors. The truth is, every body is different, and there is no single “best” way to run, just as there is no “best” fad diet for weight loss. What works for one runner might not work for you.

Regardless of running style, any training program should be started with caution, with a slow build up over several weeks to allow the body to adapt to increased or different stresses. There is no silver bullet – or silver shoe – for becoming a successful long distance runner. It takes a commitment to working and training both hard and smart.

Dr. Paul Juris is the executive director of the Cybex Research Institute.

 

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Comments

Great post. I am often asked what I think when I wear my Vibrams and the truth is I love them! I wear them in the gym more than I do to run. When running in them I definitely run more on my toes and feel it in the Gastrocs more, I use them to run in moderation and depending on weather conditions and conditions underfoot. ie running on a sand - they are perfect! In winter though they are so cold, and you cant wear socks... They are also great in water sports I find so a very versatile shoe, not just for running. As the post says, everyone is different and what works for one, will not work for all.
Posted @ Tuesday, May 29, 2012 11:19 AM by Michelle Caines
Good points about taking it slow, but otherwise a little biased. I'd like to pick you up on a few points: 
 
"Unfortunately, many are making the switch based more on the fad’s popularity than on solid science. In fact, no scientific studies show that traditional running shoes directly cause injury or that barefoot running reduces injuries." 
 
Whilst true, it's misleading. As the same thing can be said in reverse, there is no scientific evidence that modern padded trainers reduce injuries either. So just stating the former, you hint at it not being true, as there is no science to back it up. There is unlikely to be much research into this, as most of the fitness industry is locked into the profits to be made from conventional padded trainers. 
 
"And, they ran on soft grassy savannah, not concrete and asphalt" 
 
The idea that all the terrain in Africa is lush and grassy and therefore evolution only equipped humans to cope with that soft under-footing is laughable.
Posted @ Wednesday, May 30, 2012 6:31 AM by Adam Wheewall
Adam, 
 
Thanks for your comment. 
 
To your first point: I intended to focus on the question: ‘Should we remove our shoes and start barefoot running?’ What you say is indeed true; the scientific jury is still out on barefoot vs. shod being more or less injurious. However, I am posing this question from the viewpoint of someone who has likely walked, run, played sports, and trained shod their entire life. Almost every person that has asked me advice about barefoot running would fall into this category, so I felt my statement was appropriate. In other words, I am not trying to convince barefoot runners to switch back to running shod, but provide evidence for those intrigued by the current trend. If someone is constantly injured while running, I make the recommendation that going barefoot or minimalist is a possible route for this person, given that they are aware of the gait modifications the runner would likely have to make. I also make the recommendation that a runner who is consistently injured should look into the role that other training changes could make (such as increased rest, cross training, running volume, etc.) If a person is rarely or never injured, it is my opinion that it would be foolish to significantly alter their running mechanics (either directly or by removing their shoes). It is, also my opinion, that instructing an injured runner to change how they run without even asking what the injury is, or what their running history is, would be foolish. 
 
Most, if not all, of the shoe companies have found a way to profit from this minimalist trend, so I would prefer to leave the politics of corporate profits out of this scientific debate. If Ryan Hall could run a marathon 5 minutes faster by removing his shoes, I’d find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t – sponsorship money would follow in some other form. 
 
To your second point: ‘Soft’ is a relative term. Very little ‘natural’ terrain is harder than asphalt and concrete. Rock certainly is, but you can bet that someone running barefoot is going to try to avoid such terrain when possible. In addition, as man moved out of the Fertile Crescent and into cooler climates, it is much less likely that endurance hunting was frequently performed because it would be more difficult to chase prey into heat exhaustion. An additional result of this change in climate, was that man developed footwear – likely upwards of 40,000 years ago (Trinkhaus 2005). The development of shoes would be a response to the harsher (sharper, harder) and colder terrain of Eurasia. I believe it is sensible to claim that man likely ran on, and sought out, softer surfaces when running barefoot, and thus might be better coped to deal with such terrain. 
 
I am pleased that the article is stimulating interesting debate. If you have any other comments or questions I would be glad to hear them. 
 
-Cory 
 
Refs: 
 
Trinkhaus E. (2005) Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear use. J Arch Sci. 32:1515-26. 
Posted @ Wednesday, May 30, 2012 10:38 AM by Cory Hofmann
If you suffer from repetitive stress injuries, you might want to consider switching to a mid foot or forefoot running form to take some of the stress off your joints,Just make sure to adjust your stride, strengthen your feet, and don’t rush the transition from regular shoes to minimalist shoes.If you’re overweight, or have nerve damage, diabetes or any serious orthopedic issue, you need a more supportive shoe minimal shoes aren’t made for everyone.Over striding when feet land in front of your body forces the heel to land first. The most efficient foot strike is one that lands exactly below your center of gravity, usually under your hips.. Aim for a quick cadence of 180 steps per minute and your feet should fall into place. 
Posted @ Thursday, September 12, 2013 5:12 AM by Jeet Chowhan
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