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Barefoot, fact or fiction??

by Danny Orr
Monday 26th July 2010

Right now the running world is all aflutter with chat about the latest craze to hit our sport: natural, minimalist, barefoot running.

The debate currently is splitting the running fraternity, with new information, blog and articles popping up daily with people falling into one of two camps the barefoot converts (or zealots if you prefer) and the barefoot bashers. And as the volume of information increases so the debate is coming more polarised and far more intense.

What I would like to do is discuss two of the biggest misconceptions that exist in this debate, and offer an opinion and perhaps some advice to people who want to try it, in a low risk environment.

The first misconception about barefoot running is that it reduces injuries across the board. Now there are certain areas in which we are currently seeing a reduction in injuries with people who are taking the time to learn how to barefoot run correctly, these injury reductions are in categories where injuries are caused due to poor alignment. When we run barefoot we are naturally closer to the ground and therefore our alignment is often better and we will have an improvement in our balance and proprioception.

However on the flip side of that coin we are also seeing an increase in certain injuries within this new barefoot community, the majority of these injuries seem to be impact and stress related and can often prove to be more damaging than the set of alignment injuries we have just improved.

In short although running barefoot may close the door on certain running injuries, it could just as easily open another door to a whole lot of additional problems, with plantar fasciits and achillies tendonitis being the major concern at present.

On this injury question I would also like to point out that there is no research to suggest that people who run barefoot or shod have less chance of getting injured.

However what the barefoot running community always point towards, is the fact that as running shoes have become more technologically advanced while supposed injury rates have not decreased.

Although as a statement this may well be factually correc,t it is actually a gross inaccuracy when you look at the sample groups studied in each instance. In 1970 when the running/jogging boom started the average marathon time was approximately 3:10 and therefore the sample group is made up of ‘elite’ runners who are fit, strong and largely efficient runners. In 2010 the average marathon time is actually closer to 4:30, Therefore when you look at that sample group, it is made up of less natural runners who are not as fit, strong and efficient with a far higher risk of getting injured.


To take accurate sample we need to measure 3:10 marathoners in 1970 vs 3:10 marathoners in 2010, and in these 2 sample groups injury rate have vastly reduced as footwear technology has increased.

The second common misconception that is being bandied around is that running shoes weaken feet. Once again there is no research to prove this and what is even crazier is that it makes no sense!

For the couple hours a week that we wear our running shoes, our feet are working harder than at any other time during that week. When we are in our running shoes (actually running in them) we put up to 5 times our body weight through our feet at impact and toe off therefore how could they ever have been weakened during this time, when they are being put through a serious work out??

Actually there is little comprehensive research that actually says feet weaken due to wearing shoes at all; however on the flip side of this there is research to show that wearing shoes can strengthen key muscles in your legs improving efficiency and fitness. This is based primarily on the fact that if we add additional weight to our feet we naturally have to work harder to pick them up and move them forward increasing muscle strength in the process.

The fact that shoes also have a more pronounced heel, also suggests that we need to create a greater lever angle in the ankle joint to allow our heel to clear the ground and land with muscles in the lower leg working harder to make this happen, as well as stabilise a foot that is now higher off the ground.

No I know it might seem like I am bashing barefoot running. This is certainly not the case, and although there is not a lot of concrete evidence to suggest that wearing shoes weakens the small muscles in your feet, personally it makes sense to me that this could be the case as our feet are not allowed to move and work as freely and as hard as they might like.

This alone makes doing certain activities barefoot relevant for me, and placing the foot under additional pressure in a controlled environment I believe can be a benefit to your running by potentially strengthening our feet and improving their ability to address the demands you are placing on them.

What I am suggesting is that spending a period of time each week training or doing specific strengthening drills barefoot or in minimalist footwear to place our feet under more severe pressure with the long term goal of creating a stronger more efficient foot in the long term can be a good idea.

Many celebrated athletics coaches prescribe to this method of getting athletes to train barefoot for certain sessions during the week in the belief that it makes their athletes stronger, better and less prone to injury.

Personally I believe in this approach and I think it can really help the general public to, a few hours spend training barefoot/minimalist concentrating on running form as well as doing specific exercises to improve the strength of the foot and ankle/lower leg and make for better runners.

Obviously there are people reading this who will disagree with me and on the back of a book that has bought this latest running craze about want to go out and experience the ‘joy’s’ of barefoot running.

To these people I will say this, be careful, take it easy as you are getting into it and, most important, listen to your body! Chances are as you will be doing something that is new and outside of your comfort zone which can create problems, your body is the best indicator of when you may be running into trouble so listen to it.


About The Author

Danny Orr

Danny is a specialist in running biomechanics and footwear. With 5 years experience prescribing custom orthotics, and worked with various footwear brands consulting on footwear performance, product and design.


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Post A Comment


barefootf ,act or fiction article

by thebodyrehab
11:51, Wednesday 14th September 2011
Really nice balanced article. I run a sports injury clinic in the Lakes and agree that both minimalist and supported running bring their fair share of overuse injuries. Quality evidence based studies are the way forward if new ideas are to achieve acceptance with clinicians and therapists. Without this all evidence is anecdotal and therefore in my opinion without foundation. My graduate and subsequent training is underpinned by science and research and therefore all my clinical treatment requires and evidence based approach to provide my clients with the confidence that they are getting qualified and up to date treatment.
So, a call to those advocating this approach............lets get some good research done, only that way will you convince the professionals !

Barefoot or not

by Fast and Fresh
15:25, Monday 13th September 2010
I am one of the converted to Barefoot Running "So much so I bought the company" as the slogan used to say.

I didnt buy the actual company but i have become a retailer of the Vibram Five Fingers and a book called "Barefoot Running" by Michael Sandler. I may actualy have a bias view of the whole movement but it all seems to make sense to me.

I think that the injuries come about from people that do too much too soon. I was running a steady 10 miles at a time in conventional trainers and had to cut this back to half a mile for my first barefoot run. It has taken me six runs at one run per week to get up to two and a half miles.
The skin on my feet have never given me any grief and even little stones i can handle now. The problem I have is with my calf muscles. My calfs have never had to work in such a way or so hard before, on the plus side, I get no back ache or knee pain any more.

I agree with what you say about weak feet and getting a work out in shoes. I think the point being made in various books is that shoes in general have made our feet lazyits not just the runners amoungst us.

Surley though, running in big commfy shoes is like a boxer punching a soft matteres instead of a heavy bag and expecting his bones and joints to get stronger. Loading the bones with a controlled impact or resistance like in weight training has been proven to increase bone density. Surley running barefoot could do the same thing?

I now think that running in big shoes and rtying to maintain good form is like running on a water bed.

This is a debate that could go on forever. I have an interest in selling shoes and running barefoot. You have an interest in selling orthrotics that probably limit the natural rolling in of a foot in motion, plus you need to defend your product designs. I would recommend getting out there and trying it.

Until a totaly impartial study in to barefoot and injuries is done, this subject will be wide open.

TereréJordan Blood