Barefoot Running: The Case ‘For’ and ‘Against’

Recently, the popularity of barefoot running has reached a newfound high. This “back to nature” type concept is not without controversy though. Here we outline the pros and cons of this increasingly popular trend.

Back in the days of yore, people ran without anything on their feet (though the first example of footwear dates back to 8,000 BC). It wasn’t until as recently as the 1970s that modern running shoes were introduced – with more cushioning than they had before. With that the trainer companies promised protection, comfort and the most groundbreaking claim of all, speed.

Natural on unnatural

Natural on unnatural

The rest was history and trainers have rapidly become the absolute staple for runners, at least in developed countries.

BUT... are trainers all they’re cracked up to be, or has it all been a clever marketing ploy on behalf of footwear companies?

After all, a small selection of runners have achieved top-class results running barefoot, such as Olympic champions Abebe Bikila and Tegla Loroupe, as well as Zola Budd. (Although Bikila won the Rome Olympic marathon barefoot in 1960 in 2:15:16, yet at the Tokyo Olympic marathon in 1964 he wore trainers and set a new WR of 2:12:11.) It is not just athletes from developing countries who have had success: British runner Bruce Tulloh won the gold medal in the 1962 European Champs 5,000m without shoes.

The Case for the Foot in its Birthday Suit

Essentially, it’s how we were designed to run.

Barefoot running would cut out Athlete’s Foot problems in its entirety! Gone would be the days of the sweat-encased metatarsal.

The biomechanics of running change quite dramatically with the addition of shoes. When we run barefoot, the outer edge of the forefoot is the part which strikes the ground with the most force. Running in trainers tends to change this as more emphasis is placed on the heel.

“People who don’t wear shoes when they run have an astonishingly different strike,” claims Dr. D. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. “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.”

Supporters of barefoot running claim it helps reduce injuries, particularly repetitive strain injuries caused by the jarring nature of heel striking in trainers. The foot and lower leg is very good at absorbing shock and reacting, due to the springing action of the foot’s natural arch. It is only by placing large amounts of padding under the heel that we are able to land on the heel rather than on the ball of our foot. Try running barefoot and heel striking. It’s impossible!

Heel-striking causes shock that would otherwise be absorbed by the foot, to be sent up through the heel to the knees and hips. Not good!

The Case against the Foot in its Birthday Suit

Running barefoot is going “back to nature” as aforementioned, yet many people run on concrete, which is a very unforgiving surface, and totally man-made. This is not what nature intended: and subsequently the cushioning of trainers is far more important on this harsh surface. Natural mud trails or grass, however, provide cushioning similar to that of a trainer, so the benefits of shoes are somewhat negated.

Running barefoot does not protect against glass, nails or thorns, which could easily cause injury in themselves. (Vibram Fivefingers helps against this type of trauma as they provide a hard rubber casing for the feet, but still you are more likely to be affected by knobbly bits!)

Modern day runners are simply not designed to run barefoot. Triathletes tend to be heavy-set compared to gazelle-like runners who will have a lighter foot strike. Heavier athletes need to protect their joints against the greater impact their bodyweight will produce.

Biomechanically, we have become lazy in the modernised world. We have bad posture and are inactive for large parts of the day. We sit on chairs (and do not squat as nature intended), which means the stabilising muscles in the glutes and core become inactive and do not support our legs properly. The extra cushioning and stability found in decent shoes will help counteract this.

Some people have flat feet and/or biomechanically are not ideal runners. Yet with the correct footwear, they can do far more than they would otherwise be able to. Therefore, running doesn’t have to be a pastime for just the lucky few.

There is no reason why you cannot run with a midfoot strike with trainers, therefore getting the best of both worlds.

To conclude, the jury is still out unto the benefits and science behind barefoot running. If you find yourself tempted (a lot of people do enjoy the liberating feel of running this way), only do small amounts at first, make sure your calf muscles are sufficiently strong to withstand the extra stresses they will have at first, and have something on your feet, even if it is just a thin rubber sole.

We for one believe trainers are a useful commodity and will always wear ours!

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