Runners all over the United States are ditching their shoes for a new experience — running barefoot. In search of reduced injury risk and greater efficiency, runners are trading in their burdensome shoes in favor of the soles of their feet. However, some argue that barefoot running may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
From novice runners trying out lightweights, to track teams training barefoot during preseason workouts, to advanced unshod runners doing marathons, quite a few members of the running community are intrigued by the idea of running barefoot.
Proponents of barefoot running say the training will strengthen ligaments and tendons, which will help prevent injury. Advocates also say unshod runners will benefit from increased efficiency.
Barefoot running became a topic of conversation in 1960 when Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia ran the Olympic marathon barefoot and won. The practice gained more attention in the 1980s with Zola Budd of South Africa and Tegla Loroupe of Kenya running barefoot in prestigious international competitions.
When Christopher McDougall published his book “Born to Run” in 2009, the trend of barefoot running took off. McDougall researched the Tarahumara Indian tribe of the Mexican Copper Canyons. Members of the tribe can run extraordinarily long distances, usually more than 100 miles, at great speeds. In his book, McDougall describes how copying the Tarahumara’s running methods helped him overcome his injuries. He claims most running injuries are caused by modern running shoes providing too much cushioning.
“Blaming the running injury epidemic on big, bad Nike seems too easy – but that’s okay, because it’s largely their fault,” McDougall writes in his book.
Running shoes are supposed to provide support and comfort; however, we might be babying our feet too much by wearing them.
“We wear shoes to provide us good support and good padding,” said Corey Murdock, an assistant track coach at BYU and a former collegiate track and field athlete, “but too much decreases our ability to use our full range of motion.”
Murdock trains his team barefoot for about two months during preseason because it strengthens their ligaments and tendons to support a year’s worth of wear and tear. He said barefoot running can be very beneficial if runners train properly.
“It can definitely help with shin splints from weakness in the lower leg or arches,” Murdock said.
However, he made it clear his team only runs barefoot on grass and sand.
“No way I’d ever run anyone barefoot on concrete,” Murdock said.
He explained barefoot running is something runners need to be careful about. People who haven’t trained barefoot before will feel an unfamiliar elastic stretch on foot muscles, and they could potentially cause themselves more harm than good.
Most experts agree runners training barefoot should follow the 10 percent rule: each week do no more than 10 percent of their usual distance and foot-strike change. People who hit the pavement barefoot often do too much too quickly.
Jason Arias, a junior on the BYU men’s lacrosse team, said his team all tried training with Reebok RealFlexes.
“We obviously weren’t supposed to wear shoes as human beings, but then we starting wearing shoes and got used to it,” Arias said. “Free training shoes are supposed to strengthen your feet and legs, but you really need to ease into them.”
The Reebok RealFlex is just one type of minimalist shoe designed to simulate the natural motion of barefoot running while still providing the foot some protection and cushioning.
Other minimalist shoes like Nike Free Runs, the Saucony Hattori, the New Balance Minimus line and the Brooks PureProject line have zero or minimal heel-to-toe drop, which allows feet to flex fully.
Cassidee Feinauer, a junior from South Jordan, wears her Nike Free Runs regularly to work out.
“It’s like not wearing shoes at all,” Feinauer said. “They’re so light and make running easier.”
These minimalist shoes are designed to encourage a midfoot or forefoot strike instead of a heel strike.
“In heel striking, the collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact transient, a nearly instantaneous, large force,” A Harvard study on the bio-mechanics of foot strikes said. “This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system. In forefoot striking, the collision of the forefoot with the ground generates a very minimal impact force with no impact transient.”
Some “shoes,” called barefoot shoes, provide the closest feel to barefoot running. They are hardly even a shoe but give the runner a bit of protection. Vibram Five-fingers, Adidas Adipure Trainers and Fila Skele-toes are the main leaders of the toe-shoe craze.
According to an REI expert advice article, “Soles [of barefoot shoes] provide the bare minimum in protection from potential hazards on the ground. Many have no cushion in the heel pad and a very thin layer (as little as 3-4mm) of shoe between your skin and the ground.”
Compared to traditional running shoes, which have a 10-12mm heel-toe drop, barefoot shoes all have a zero drop. This helps the runner to land with a midfoot or forefoot strike instead of a heel strike. Barefoot shoes also fit differently than traditional running shoes.
“You do not want any extra space in the toes of minimalist shoes,” the REI article stated. “Heel and toes should be comfortably snug and ‘fit like a glove.'”
Keith Perry, a sophomore and an outdoor enthusiast from Sandy, said Vibram Five-fingers are the perfect way to get started in barefoot running. He said he wears his Vibrams mostly for hiking to get close to nature and to be as light and minimalistic as possible with his gear.
“Running barefoot, hiking barefoot, doing everything outdoorsy barefoot is a great way to strengthen the feet and muscles in the lower leg that don’t get worked as frequently as the rest of the leg muscles,” Perry said. “When the lower legs are healthy it improves balance and posture and this all contributes to a healthy back and spine.”
Caitlan DeArton, a 23-year-old runner from Idaho Falls, Idaho, said her Vibrams have helped her running form.
“They help you run the way your body was made to run (because you’re basically barefoot), and so your body absorbs shock better and allows your momentum to move with you,” DeArton said. “I used to get a sore back and knees whenever I ran, but now that I’m running more naturally nothing hurts.”
So it seems like careful, barefoot running can alleviate and prevent injury in the long run. But according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder, it doesn’t. Jason R. Franz, a doctoral candidate who led the study, told the New York Times he saw proof that shoes benefited the wearer.
“What we found was that there seem to be adaptations that occur during the running stride that can make wearing shoes metabolically less costly,” Franz said.
If a runner doesn’t wear shoes, the leg muscles have to absorb some of the shock. This makes the muscles contract, which requires more energy, so the metabolic cost rises and efficiency decreases.
So if efficiency isn’t a concern, stick with shoes. However, if you’re looking for relief from shin splints, patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee) or plantar fasciitis, barefoot running could be the answer. Training carefully wearing minimalist shoes or no shoes can help runners reduce injury risk by strengthening ligaments and tendons.