Barefoot Running – Is it really better for you?
- Posted on: Aug 24 2017
A popular concept today in the realm of exercise is barefoot running. Many people today choose to throw away their old running shoes with cushioned heels and run barefoot or wear minimalist shoes. While there is some debate on the topic, studies have shown that barefoot running results in decreased ground reaction forces into the lower extremity resulting in decreased mechanical stress on the knee; one study even found less knee impact with barefoot running compared to minimalist shoes. Barefoot running has also demonstrated improvements in the strength of intrinsic and extrinsic musculature due to decreased work at the knee and increased work at the ankle. Some studies even suggest improvements in speed due to a smaller stride in barefoot running resulting in an increased cadence (steps per second).
The mechanism behind barefoot running is a change in foot striking pattern; barefoot runners have a tendency to strike the ground with their forefoot or midfoot region first as opposed to a rear foot (heel) strike which often occurs when running with modern shoes that have a cushioned and elevated heel. Due to increased plantarflexion at the ankle during landing, more ankle compliance is created resulting in less body mass colliding with the ground.
While there are benefits to barefoot running, a downfall is the increased eccentric loading of the Achilles tendon after foot strike. After a runner lands on their forefoot or midfoot, the calve muscles must work vigorously to slow down the descent of the heel. Constant strain and overload to the calf musculature can result in posterior shin splints, achilles tendonitis, and even torn achilles tendon.
Recent studies have also shown that not all runners are able to properly adapt to the forefoot strike in barefoot running, and maintain the ankle in dorsiflexion when striking; canceling out the aforementioned benefits. Specific training is required on the proper methods of barefoot running. While decreasing impact forces at the knee, barefoot running and forefoot strike have been shown to increase stress and workload at the foot and ankle, resulting in plantar fasciitis and metatarsal stress fractures.
To summarize barefoot running can be beneficial to populations with knee pain, but can lead to other problems in the foot, especially if not done properly. People who intend to begin barefoot running require specialized training by a skilled professional else they risk improper technique that will only add to their problems. Many studies do not take into account the type of foot a person has before testing the effects of barefoot running. People with flat feet or overpronators, may require an orthotic to run; this population may not be ideal candidates for barefoot running and may increase their risk of injury. Everyone’s feet are different and should seek assistance from a healthcare professional such as a podiatrist or physical therapist before starting a new type of running program or changing their current one. A healthcare professional can examine the different causes to a person’s foot abnormalities and properly determine if they need an orthotic or if barefoot running can be beneficial.