Barefoot Running: worth going the extra mile?

Words: Ruaidhri Marshall

When you think of barefoot running you might instinctively picture a prehistoric man running through the forest gathering food…. or trying not to become food. So it might be surprising to learn that in the last decade barefoot running has gone through somewhat of a mini revolution, especially in the US.

  Photograph: Annie Spratt, @anniespratt.

Photograph: Annie Spratt, @anniespratt.

  Two Tarahumara men photographed in Tuaripa, Chihuahua, in 1892 by  Carl Lumholtz

Two Tarahumara men photographed in Tuaripa, Chihuahua, in 1892 by Carl Lumholtz

Are we Born to Run?

Barefoot running, or as some people call it, ‘natural running’ saw a significant rush of popularity during the release of the critically acclaimed book, Born to Run by Chris McDougall in 2009. McDougall ‘s book was well received in the endurance sports world on the whole and for some, sparked the fire to start changing their attitude to running.

The New York Times bester seller was eye opening for its investigation into the Tarahumara people. A Native Mexican tribe that sought refuge in the Copper Canyons, north west Mexico from the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.

These people are world renowned for running extreme long distances on their barefoot, a main premise for his book. As an avid runner, McDougall, like nearly all of us in the running community has suffered from injuries ranging from the foot to the knee. He explains how he prevailed over his injuries by modelling his running after the Tarahumara tribe.

The main assertion is that focusing on letting your ball of your foot to be the first point of contact to the ground when you run (instead of the heel) prevents your knee joints and leg from stretching out straight. Keeping your leg slightly bent allows you to carry momentum forward. Apparently, it’s the natural way to run. This is something that McDougall noticed with the Tarahumara tribe and is to be a key factor within the barefoot movement.  

The 70s, Nike, and the birth of cheesy running commercials

It's a common understanding that real technological advancement in modern running shoes came during the 1970s when high profile companies were producing shoe midsoles with extra shock-absorbing features.

As time went on, the industry gave birth to further measures including looking into pronation, according to the shoe company Asics, ‘’ Pronation is part of the natural movement of the human body and refers to the way your foot rolls inward for impact distribution upon landing. Understanding your pronation type can help you find a comfortable running shoe’’.  

Shoe producers would add ‘anti-pronation’ qualities such as ‘duel-density midsoles’ to prevent rearfoot pronation. Nowadays, companies go as far as adding soles full of air pockets, series of springs and even gel…yes gel.

Barefooter’s galore

The videos above may leave a smirk on your face but did running commercials like these in the mid to late 20th century give birth to an unhealthy habit? Many thinks so…

There is a niche but hugely passionate barefoot running community. For example, the biggest community of Barefoot runners must be the Barefoot Runners Society. An online forum which has over 97 chapters worldwide, including at least one for every state in the US, (Florida itself has 5 Chapters!).

I was amazed to discover just how big this community is. From New York to New Zealand, Tennessee to Taiwan and even a small dedicated group on the US Osan Air Base in South Korea.

I leave my footprint for you to see
the damage that shoes did to me.
My foot is no longer nice and wide
but narrow and cramped in shoes they hide.
No longer are my feet healthy and free
but diseased and sick, they bother me.
Take this as a lesson, so you may too
not be fooled into thinking shoes rule.
This is what society did to me.
I leave my footprint for the world to see.
— Barefoot TJ, Barefoot Running Society Administrator.

The big question… is barefoot running supported by science?

Well, partly…

Jason Robillard, contributor for the Barefoot Runners Society, points to the conclusion that there is strong anecdotal evidence and small studies that hint toward certain benefits to Barefoot Running, something he explains in his article ‘Is Barefoot and Minimalist Running Supported by Research?’. The article continues to say, ‘The holy grail of research would be some sort of large, representative-sampled double-blind longitudinal experiment that compared the injury rates and/or efficiency of barefoot runners and shod runners over a long period of time’.

A feature on Podiatry Today, by Dr. Kirby, Professor for the Department of Applied Biomechanics Samuel Merritt University, California, tries to understand what is best for runners. Barefoot or Shod. She describes how research into this subject has uncovered some valuable talking points.

Studies have found that 75% of runners heal strike, with barefoot runners learning to avoid this modern phenomenon (as previously mentioned by Chris McDougall, this can lead to an outstretched knee, thus causing knee injuries).

Not heel striking may reduce their impact loads when hitting the ground, as described by Dr Kirby, ‘reducing their impact load by avoiding the initial loading peak that occurs in the majority of runners who heel strike’.  

Research into this subject is unfortunately limited however, as reiterated by Dr Kirby:

One should advise each runner-patient on the potential risks and benefits of barefoot versus shod running before they attempt to emulate their unshod ancestors by running barefoot. With so many questions remaining unanswered regarding barefoot versus shod running, further research will be necessary to further illuminate this fascinating subject.

Honestly? It depends where you look. It's easy to discover maverick barefoot enthusiasts on the internet who have ran over 79 marathons barefoot.

Enter: Ken Bob - my favourite human of all time.

The middle man… minimalist shoes.

If you don’t want to attract onlookers from the general public on your daily run but you are leaning toward the benefits of barefoot running, there is a comfy(er) alternative. Minimalist running shoes. Brands like Vibram offer slightly unconventional five foot running shoes with a minimal heel. Another highly rated minimal shoe make is the Vivobarefoot. These types of trail shoes can range in price but can vary from anything from £60 to £160.

It is something I have started to notice when researching the minimalist shoe phenomenon. People have reported that running minimalist is strengthening their mid part and front ball on their feet. Reports of people developing a healthier looking foot arch and general strengthened foot muscles.

What the future holds.

What we really need is an in-depth well thought out scientific study that looks at injury rates and/ efficiency of barefoot runners and shod runners over a long period of time. I do believe that minimalist shoes are the way to go for most cases. Especially in ultra runs, people are turning to acquiring minimalist well designed shoe brands and experiencing the benefits after a long period of time. It is EXTREMELY important to remember to take it slow if you are beginning your barefoot ventures. Easing into it and finding your rhythm. Practicing and building up your foot muscles. And ultimately…having fun.

Another aspect I haven’t really delved into, is the general euphoria of natural running. Whether you’re a wearer of minimalist running shoes or an absolute savage that goes barefoot, it is undeniable that running natural gives you a second runners high.

Maybe Ken Bob, the bearded barefoot runner guru has a point… you can tell a barefoot runner by the smile on their face.


References, interesting relevant links and further reading on this subject:

Barefoot Runners Society - https://www.thebarefootrunners.org/

Ken Bob Saxon - https://barefootrunning.com/barefoot-ken-bob-saxton

Science Direct, current understanding and evidence of barefoot running - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S021012381630010X

Chris McDougall’s Critically acclaimed book, Born to Run –

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Born-Run-Hidden-Ultra-Runners-Greatest/dp/1861978774

Christ McDougall’s Ted Talk -https://www.ted.com/talks/christopher_mcdougall_are_we_born_to_run?language=en

Tarahumara Tribe and their secrets to barefoot running -https://running.competitor.com/2016/02/training/four-running-secrets-of-the-tarahumara_145377

Podiatry Today, Dr Kirby’s journal -

https://www.podiatrytoday.com/barefoot-versus-shod-running-which-best

 

There is a plethora of online tutorials, exercises and podcasts on this subject. To help you learn more about this form of running and how it will hopefully benefit your running experience.

What are your experiences? Leave a comment below.

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