As a podiatrist, my teachers, professors and peers, espoused that feet need help, specifically they need good support, cushioning, and padding. But, more and more, I started reading about people and cultures that go barefoot and not only do they have fewer foot, ankle, knee and even back problems. Now, I am re-thinking everything I learned.
Was The Human Foot Designed to Walk and Run Barefoot?
The human foot is incredible, strong, dynamic and adaptable. For thousands of years our feet survived and functioned fine (maybe even better?) without elaborately padded, supported $100 Nikes. Further, persons without their hands can learn to drive and paint with their feet. Take a look at the masterpieces created by the Mouth and Foot Painter Artists association. Why can’t a runner learn to run barefoot?
Recently, Christopher McDougall has reinvigorated the barefoot running debate with his book Born To Run. Previously, some runners have had great success barefoot, including the late, great Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia.
Runners have been plagued with foot, ankle and knee problems. It comes with the territory: two to three times the weight of the runner’s body coming down on each foot with each stride. The advocates of barefoot running claim they can literally feel the ground and as a result, the biomechanics of their running gait changes to lessen the force of your foot landing.
Advocates of barefoot running contend that shoes worsen the chance of injury.
The scientific literature on barefoot running (and barefoot walking) is scarce, but at this point the published research leans toward running and walking barefoot, and I would have to agree—barefoot is better!
I just may be the first podiatrist to advocate running barefoot, but let me clarify this statement: I don’t believe barefoot running is for everyone. I will discuss who and who shouldn’t run (or walk) barefoot in just a moment. First, let me talk briefly about the medical and scientific literature.
The scientific literature on barefoot running is sparse. But, what is out there supports more foot and ankle injuries in people wearing running shoes than in persons going barefoot. This is also true of plantar fasciitis, some knee problems, and other injuries. It appears that running shoes decrease sensory feedback, interfering with the body’s natural shock absorbing tendencies. Further, running shoes may actually decrease the runner’s awareness of their foot and the foot’s position, increasing the risk of injury.
Our feet have many muscles within each foot and many that attach to our feet that originate in the leg. Wearing running shoes may lessen or diminish the “firing” of some of these muscles. When the foot is not in shoes, it adapts—rapidly—to uneven surfaces, and in theory, forcing us to “use” all the muscles in our foot.
Who Should Run Barefoot (and who should not!)
Reasonably experienced runners in good condition with healthy feet should try barefoot running (when conditions and terrain warrant it). By “healthy feet” I mean their foot has a good, stable structure, and good sensation. Their foot does not have an excessively high arch or low arch and they are not diabetic. Further, their foot should be free of any significant deformities—no bunions, hammertoes, or other bone problems. Persons who are diabetic, have decreased sensation, or a foot that is not healthy or flat or high arched etcetera, likely needs corrective support, such as good running shoes and/or orthotics.
Learning to Run Barefoot
Barefoot runners have a different gait than shoe-wearing runners. Learning to run barefoot takes time and training. I imagine not everyone will be able to teach themselves and their feet to adapt to barefoot running. Remember, some of the superstar athletes who run barefoot may have grown up in cultures where shoes were not the norm and as result, you have someone whose foot is more use to being bare than in a shoe. Further, persons who are in these “barefoot” communities may have a foot with genetic adaptations geared toward barefoot running—meaning, generations of going barefoot have essentially bred a foot that works better when bare.
What to Watch Out For When Running Barefoot
Barefoot running isn’t without risks. Start slow and build up gradually. Research the right way to build up proprioception reflexes in your feet, ankles and legs, and build up the muscles. Don’t run where you can injure your feet—avoid nails, rocks, broken glass etcetera.. (Part of the reason the medical community has strongly advocated shoes is because of the risk of puncture wonds. Every podiatrist has seen his or her share of glass and nails inside their patients’ feet. Further, cold weather can cause frostbite on unprotected feet.)
Vibram makes a shoe that increases the ability to feel the ground, as does Terra Plana and Nike Free (see links below). One scientific study does support that Vibram’s Five Finger’s reasonably simulates barefoot conditions.
I would be interested to hear about your experiences running barefoot. Specifically, I am curious if there are any successful barefoot runners who have a poor foot structure (i.e. flat foot, bunions, pronation etc.)
Resources for Barefoot Running
The point of this article is to get people thinking about barefoot running and decide for themselves if it is right for them. Here are some resources to help you learn more about barefoot running (and I would recommend reading Chris McDouball’s book Born To Run):