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.

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