Is barefoot running really better for you? While scientific research is yet to have a clear decision on the matter, some fitness professionals will say running barefoot can increase your running speed, increase your strength and prevent injuries. Other fitness professionals will tell you that barefoot running is unsafe and not worth it. Some entire cultures, such as the Tarahumara in Mexico still foster the idea of running without shoes or with very thin soled shoes. Between the significant popularity of the book Born To Run, that promotes barefoot running; to the recent lawsuit against Vibram FiveFingers, claiming that barefoot running is not as beneficial as they claimed; it is hard to make an intelligent decision that will benefit your training.
My opinion with barefoot running is that it is like any other new training regimen. When used in moderation and proper technique it has shown to make a positive difference in athletic training. So what is the big hype with barefoot running?
Barefoot running is supposed to be the more natural way to run. All the muscles in our legs and feet are working when we are running barefoot whereas when you wear tennis shoes; they can keep your foot muscles from being used to their full potential. They almost act as a cast for your feet. For example, when you break an arm and have to wear a cast, your arm muscles tend to atrophied, which means they get significantly weaker from lack of use. This is why physical therapy is usually prescribed after breaking a limb or having surgery. Physical therapy helps the body slowly get the unused muscles back in practice of doing what they were designed to do. The same goes for your feet except if you are like the majority of society, your feet muscles have never been used adequately because you have always ran in tennis shoes. The reason most people injure themselves with barefoot running is because they go on their normal 4 mile run but they use muscles that have never been used before. This is why your calf muscles are significantly sorer after a barefoot run. If you want to do barefoot training you have to start from square one. Even if you regular run 6 miles, you should still not run more than half a mile when beginning barefoot training.
Barefoot running advocates also argue that the training has also shown to help decrease injuries such as IT Band Syndrome, Runners Knee and shin splints. When barefoot running, the body will most like change its stride and foot strike naturally to a forestrike instead of a heel-strike. When you run with a forestrike, the impact is spread throughout your foot instead of concentrated on your heel. When given the opportunity, your body can correct itself and prevent injury, while when wearing tennis shoes; your body does not have as much of an ability to correct itself. The tennis shoe actually cause more impact on your joints and once you start feeling pain, it is usually too late. In theory, the cushion of the tennis shoe is supposed to decrease the impact on your joints but in reality, your foot is searching for a solid surface. Since there is a cushioning layer between your foot and the ground, your foot will actually strike harder in order to break through the cushion and feel the solid surface.
Aside from injury prevention, barefoot running has shown to increase speed. Studies have shown that the decreased weight on the foot has increased running efficiency. However, if someone is new to barefoot running they should start from square one and very slowly increase their barefoot running distance. The transition to barefoot running can lead to injury if done too quickly.
If barefoot running seems like something worth trying, it is wise to be educated on the positive and negative effects. However, no one should ever completely write off a training regime without having adequate information and proper training. Runner’s World Editor-in-Chief, David Willey, wrote about barefoot running in 2011 and summed up the controversial subject by stating “There’s no single answer or prescription that’s right for every runner when it comes to footwear and running form.”