Sports Science Update: Does “Barefoot” Running Have Legs?

Focus on lifting the foot as you run in an effort to prevent blistering.

A new scientific survey shows more interest than participation.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Very few runners have switched to running on naked feet. But very many, it seems, have switched to running in minimalist footwear.

The May 2009 publication of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run kicked off what we might call a barefoot running revolution. Two and a half years later, what is the state of that revolution? What are its lasting effects?

The most obvious effects are to be seen in the running shoe industry. Very few runners have switched to running on naked feet. But very many, it seems, have switched to running in minimalist footwear. According to a New York Times article published this past summer, sales of barely-there running shoes such as those made by Vibram increased by 283 percent in 2010. Compare that to an 18 percent increase in running shoe sales overall.

More from Competitor.com: The Barefoot Running Injury Epidemic

Carey Rothschild, a physical therapist at the University of Central Florida, recently came at the question of the state of the barefoot running revolution from a different angle. She developed a survey to assess individual interest and participation in barefoot and minimalist running and distributed it electronically to more than 6,000 runners. The results were published in the October 2011 edition of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

More than 75 percent of respondents “indicated they were at least somewhat interested in running barefoot or in minimalist shoes,” according to Rothschild. More than one in five had tried actual barefoot running and 30 percent had tried running in minimalist footwear. Runners who were male, of younger age, and who considered themselves “elite” (this was Rothschild’s word; I assume she meant “competitive”) were more likely to have given it a go. The most commonly cited reason for trying barefoot or minimalist running was a desire to prevent future injuries. Those who made the experiment were equally likely to have received guidance from friends or from books. And more than 85 percent “indicated they were at least somewhat likely to continue with or to add barefoot or minimalist shod running if provided sufficient instruction.”

Related: Light, Fast & Free: 2011 Racing Flat/Minimalist Running Shoe Review

These results suggest that the barefoot running revolution does have legs. However, there were some contrary indications as well. Only 13 percent of the runners who received Rothschild’s survey filled it out and submitted it. That’s not a bad participation rate. In fact, it’s fairly high, which strengthens my intuition that there was a strong self-selection effect at work in favor of runners who were into barefoot or minimalist running. I suspect that the 87 percent of runners who did not respond to the survey would have filled it out rather differently.

Also unclear from the abstract (I haven’t been able to access the full paper) is the percentage of respondents who were currently running barefoot or in minimalist footwear. The abstract tells us how many had tried it previously. But how many had since gone back to their old shoes? I think we all know runners who have experimented with minimalist footwear, gotten hurt, and retreated to traditional running shoes. I’d be willing to bet that the difference between the percentage of runners who “had previously tried” barefoot and minimalist running and the percentage of runners who were still doing it was fairly substantial.

Another telling statistic from the survey was this: 54 percent of respondents cited fear of getting injured as the primary barrier to running barefoot or in minimalist shoes. I wonder to what degree this fear was informed by common sense and to what degree it was informed by personal familiarity with barefoot forays gone wrong. As the number of barefoot experimenters who tear Achilles tendons, strain calves, fracture calcaneal bones, and mutilate plantar fascia accumulates, fear of injury may prevent more and more runners from trying the same experiment, despite their evident curiosity.

Scientists who administer surveys know that “intent” is seldom to be trusted. Close to 100 percent of adults intend to reduce the amount of debt they carry each year, but more than half usually go in the opposite direction. So while that 85 percent statistic seems to foretell a tidal wave of future barefoot and minimalist runners, the smart money might bet against it.

More from Competitor.com–Baring Your Soles: An Educational Series On Barefoot Running

As a runner who favors relatively minimal shoes and who believes that, before May 2009, a great many runners who would have been better off in minimalist shoes were not wearing them, I am pleased that the barefoot running revolution has dramatically increased the number and variety of minimalist offerings on the shelves of running specialty retails stores. If the revolution goes no further than this, I’ll be satisfied.

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Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at mattfizgerald.org.

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