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Barefoot Running: Pros & Cons

Should you Run Barefoot?

Lately, the trend toward minimalist running shoes and even shoes that mimic bare feet is increasing.  The reason, in part, is due to a 2010 Harvard University study that reported that running bare-footed has a lower impact on bones and joints than running in shoes.

The Study

Harvard researchers found that when our ancestors’ ran they landed on their forefeet which produces minimal impact on knees, ankles, and hips.  Conversely, upon videotaping people running in modern shoes, they found that runners landed on their heels first most of the time which maximizes impact on joints and bones.

Running Barefoot

Footwear has changed over the years.  A few decades ago, most runners had very light shoes.  But with advances in other forms of technology came the age of sneaker engineering.  As a result, running shoes became highly tricked-out and overly supportive.  Now scientists, coaches, and fitness aficionados are questioning all that shoe support and are wondering whether high-tech versions of sneakers are actually causing problems.

Proponents of barefoot running say that there are benefits to be gained from running barefoot.  For starters, runners who run barefoot or with minimalist shoes tend to rack up fewer injuries since they strike on the balls of their feet instead of on their heels first.  There is also evidence that barefoot runners build up injury resistance because they are better able to get a “feel” for their stride and their muscles are allowed full range of motion which leads to fewer shin splint injuries or stress fractures.

Barefoot runners also have better balance and proprioception – the acute ability to receive subtle biological information about position and motion and the fine-tuned ability to become aware of our own movement in space.  Without being impeded by shoes, barefoot runners activate the smaller, more specialized muscle fibers in the lower extremities.

Minimizing the Risks

Just because there have been some benefits identified with barefoot running doesn’t mean you should nix the sneakers right away.  In fact, going cold turkey will most assuredly end up causing a potentially serious injury.  The best way to minimize the risk of switching from shod to shoeless is to begin is by adjusting your gait as much as possible with your regular shoes on.  Strive to land your foot just below your hips.  In addition, force yourself to run as quietly as possible.  Striking heel first is noisy, so if you are running quietly you automatically know that you are striking either mid or forefoot which is your goal.

It seems that the trend in sneakers is slowly edging away from cushioned running shoes to barely-there versions built for the barefoot experience.  And some of the big manufacturers are getting on board as well.  As the barefoot revolution ensues, look for big names like Nike and Adidas to lead the way in the minimalist shoe market.