The concept of barefoot running is getting a lot of interest lately, as well as a lot of debate on running and medical forums, with the question “is barefoot running good or bad for you?” It is certainly not a new concept and running shoe companies have been catering for the so called minimalist runners for many years. The recent publication of the book, Born to Run ignited a lot of interest in it. In this post, Craig Payne shares some thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of barefoot running. What do you think?
The Barefoot Running Controversy
The benefits that are claimed for barefoot running include increased foot strength, which is based on the claim that running shoes weaken muscles, that no research has shown; improved running biomechanics, which the research has not shown despite claims by barefoot runners (all the research has shown is that barefoot running is different to shoe running, not better); reduced injuries, which has not been shown by the research and a quick look at barefoot running blogs and running forums show a lot of runners seeking advice for the inquires they got while running barefoot.
Particularly common in barefoot runners is what has become known as ‘top of foot pain’ and metatarsal stress fractures. None of this means that barefoot running is not good, it’s just the claims made for it are not supported by the research in the way that those who make the claims like to think.
Many in the barefoot running community also claim that running shoes are evil and are the cause of many of the running overuse injuries that occur. Again, there is no evidence that this is actually the case, yet you can often see research quoted that they claim shows this. On closer inspection, the research does not actually show what is claimed. There is no research that running shoes help either. That does not mean they are bad, it just means that no one has yet done the research.
Elite runners and elite triathletes look for every edge that they can get and none of them run barefoot. Some do incorporate barefoot drills into their training, but do distance themselves from many of the claims for barefoot running. Even the elite African runners who grow up barefoot, choose to use running shoes. You often see statements about Abebe Bikala winning the 1960 Olympic marathon barefoot, but he went on to break a world record wearing running shoes in the 1964 Olympics. You often see statements about Zola Budd competing in the Olympic 1500 meter barefoot, but she started to get a number of injuries and had to resort to running shoes to prevent the injuries.
Bottom Line is that We Need More Research on Barefoot Running
Personally, I don’t have a problem with the concept of barefoot running. What I have a problem with is the somewhat religious fanaticism that some in the barefoot running go about with the claims they make and the misuse, misquoting and misrepresentation of the research that they make use of to claim to support their cause. Barefoot runners are not unique in this approach and others such as Pose and Chi runners make similar nonsensical claims.
My belief is that there is not one running style, technique or method that suits all runners and it’s up to the individual. Claims for the benefits of any running approach need to be carefully evaluated and not taken at face value and the research checked to see if it actually show what is being claimed. There is even an anti-barefoot running website that critically analyses all the claims made by barefoot runners.
About the author: Craig Payne is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Podiatry at LaTrobe University in Australia and a moderator on Podiatry Arena where a lot of barefoot running topics get discussed.
Comments from Mike: Sounds like there are definitely pros and cons to barefoot running, but until the evidence shows us otherwise, I’d lean towards running shoes. Especially if this is something you are not used to doing and you run for long distances, your foot may not be ready for it! What do you think? Have you had an experience with barefoot running, either good or bad? I know that I have seen a large increase in the amount of barefoot runners wearing the Vibram FiveFinger product, any experience with this product or others for barefoot running?