Barefoot-style running trendy, but harmful?

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Half of the participants in a recent BYU study experienced bone damage or injuries when they switched to five-finger minimalist shoes.

Researchers said the shoes are not bad but that runners may need to make the transition over a longer period of time and at a lower intensity than the manufacturer recommends.

Three runners who run barefoot, in five-finger or minimalist shoes, shared their experiences, tips and cautions for successful “barefoot” running.

Runners switching to a more natural shoe should consider running on natural surfaces, like grass. (Photo by Chris Bunker)
Runners switching to a more natural shoe should consider running on natural surfaces, like grass. (Photo by Chris Bunker)

Caleb Scoville, a BYU graduate and manager at Runner’s Circle in Orem, decided to try barefoot running after receiving regular injuries while running.

“I decided I had nothing to lose and started running barefoot on grass,” Scoville said. “I started out at 30 seconds to one minute at a time and slowly built up, primarily on grass.”

Scoville’s approach was significantly more gradual than the approach of those in the study who ran one mile the first week. At the end of 10 weeks, the participants were running up to 18 miles.

“When you are jumping onto a track and onto cement and asphalt, ten weeks is not enough, in my opinion, to really make a gradual transition to barefoot,” Scoville said.

Scoville recommends starting on grass or soft trails and starting as he did, 30 seconds to one minute at a time, slowly increasing by a small amount each week.

Scoville also recommends evaluating your running form. Even experienced runners have bad form that may be exacerbated when switching footwear.

Chris Holdaway, a sophomore from Vienna, Va., began barefoot running when he injured his knee in the middle of a run.  Holdaway still had to get home, so took off his shoes and ran home in the grass.

Holdaway was surprised that running barefoot seemed to reduce the pain in his knee, and he began seriously running barefoot and in five-finger shoes after that. Holdaway said that barefoot-style running should not be something a runner does as a fad.

“The very first thing is that you have to understand … it’s going to be a process,” Holdaway said. “You can’t just go out and run five miles and expect to make that work.”

Holdaway said traditional running shoes make feet rely on additional support. Holdaway recommends walking barefoot to strengthen foot muscles and bones for five-finger or minimalist running.

“When you’re walking back from class, take your shoes off,” Holdaway said. “That will teach your mind to receive the feedback that it’s getting from your feet. If you step on a rock, you will learn to step lightly and roll off of it so … you don’t get injured every time you step on a rock.”

Alex Lew, president of BYU’s Running Club, began running in minimalist shoes during his senior year of high school. Lew said he would not always recommend the switch.

“First, I’d ask them if they were having problems with their normal shoes and if they were getting injuries with them,” Lew said. “If not, I don’t know if I would recommend it because if it’s not broke(n), why fix it?”

Lew points out that a running form that works great in traditional running shoes may not work in minimalist or barefoot-style shoes.

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