Should I Run Barefoot?
A Podiatrists perspective.
As a Podiatrist part of my responsibility is to educate, not just my patients, but other healthcare professionals/sports men and women and the general public. This means giving the occasional lecture and over the last few years I am often asked about barefoot running.
Due to my profession you will be thinking that this will be a very one sided blog about how bad this is for you, well I am going to put a few simple, logical ideas across and hopefully give you an insight into what I think when asked about barefoot running.
The usual questions I am asked are:
- Surely running barefoot is natural? We aren’t born with shoes on so surely we are supposed to be barefoot?
- The African barefoot runners are the best in the world so surely we should be running barefoot too?
- When we were cavemen we didn’t have shoes and we used to run then, so surely this is how we should run?
These are fair questions so here are a couple of points to think about:
Is it natural for us to run barefoot?
- What surface are you running on? The foot is designed to constantly adapt to changing surfaces which means that force is applied to different areas of the foot and lower limb throughout a run. Our feet haven’t evolved fast enough to keep up with hard man-made surfaces. When you consider the increased force and application of said force to the same structures over and over again throughout a run we surely have to question whether or not running barefoot on pavements and roads is a natural thing to do.
- Were you brought up wearing shoes? I was, in fact most people in the northern hemisphere are. Due to our parents/guardian’s wanting to protect our delicate little feet from the stones/glass and other nasties that find themselves on our streets, we are put on shoes. Now think about what that means to your foot?! When we put our feet in to supportive footwear, the foot and muscles in the lower limb don’t have to support itself as much, therefore leaving you slightly weaker. We continue to wear shoes for years and this becomes natural for us. A shoe is often pitched with the heel slighter thicker than the front of the shoe, going barefoot will ask your heel to drop further than it would usually and this can be stressful to certain muscles/tendons.
On the flip side to that imagine growing up without footwear. Your feet become tougher and the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles in the foot and lower leg become conditioned to forces being applied to the foot. So running barefoot for these guys certainly is natural. Runners like Abebe Bikila and Zola Budd were born and raised in Southern Hemisphere countries where being barefoot was the norm.
Are you running barefoot or with a minimal/barefoot shoe?
- The feet are among the most nerve enriched parts of the body and give us a huge amount of feedback when walking barefoot. The problem is when people refer to “barefoot running” they are referring to minimal footwear like the Vibram 5 finger shoes. This is NOT barefoot running. Essentially what you are doing is placing a thick bit of rubber attached to a sock under your foot and calling it barefoot running. The problem I have with this is that you are essentially de-sensitising the foot and offering nothing to compensate for reduced sensory feedback. The tests that I have performed comparing barefoot running to minimal footwear running shows improved foot function when barefoot.
What does running barefoot do to your running style?
- Running barefoot will push you forward onto your mid-forefoot as the forces are too high to heel strike. This should result in the shortening of your stride length and will certainly rely heavily on the posterior muscle groups (gastrocnemius/soleus) to compensate. One of the biggest mistakes we see in clinic is when runners transition from normal running shoes into minimal running shoes too quickly which can lead to pulled muscles and sore tendons.
So, should you run barefoot?
My opinion is that not everyone should try barefoot running, the people who tend to succeed with the transition to barefoot running are seasoned, experienced runners who are already conditioned to long hard miles. These people will have approached the transition carefully giving themselves plenty of time to adjust to lower heel drops and less cushioning as well as allowing for suitable muscular conditioning of the lower limb.
My advice to runners is to not barefoot run on concrete or hard man-made surfaces at all. If you are keen to take on barefoot running then make sure you give yourself plenty of time to allow the body to adjust to the altered application of force.
For further information or to speak to one of our experienced Podiatrists about barefoot running or running in general please contact us with the contact information below