Is barefoot running safe?
Leonardo Da Vinci said, “The human foot is a work of art and a masterpiece of engineering.” Barefoot running is sometimes called minimalism or natural running and describes running barefoot or running in shoes with exceptionally thin soles. Man ran for millennia without shoes, so why in recent history have we become obsessed with running shoes? It is interesting to note that after many years of producing relatively heavy running shoes with innovations such as gel pockets, air pumps and other gimmicks, the big sporting companies are now producing light shoes that allow the foot to flex naturally and hit the ground as a bare foot would. Is this perhaps because these companies can see that barefoot and minimalist running is becoming popular and they are worried about their profit margins?
Here's a Youtube Video from The Guardian UK explaining how barefoot running is better than with a shoe on and how to achieve it:
Man has been doing endurance running for well over one million years. It is thought that this aerobic ability evolved well before the advent of spears and other projectile weapons, as man ran great distances in order to hunt down his food. Most four-legged animals can outrun humans but we have the added advantage that we cool through sweating, rather than panting. This gives us the ability to run over distances where animals will overheat. Thus our ancestors would run until the animal he was hunting could run no more and he was able to move in for the kill. Ancient man ran these endurance races barefoot or with minimal footwear such as moccasins or sandals. It is possible that ancient man’s regular running activity is today’s reason for our need to pursue aerobic activities such as soccer, running and other forms of aerobic exercise. The Running Man theory was thrust into the public eye in Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run, where he regales us with his remarkable experiences with Tamahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyons. He found a people who were able to run day after day wearing only minimal sandals, while never tiring and thoroughly enjoying each minute of their journey. McDougall also found that these amazing people were serenely happy and did not suffer from the illnesses which modern man suffers today.
THE ADVENT OF THE RUNNING SHOE
Before the mid 1970s, people ran barefoot, in sandals or moccasins or in shoes with a very thin sole. There was no arch support in these shoes, no built up heel and little or no cushioning. In the 1970s, running shoes were introduced with heels and cushioning. This modern running shoe design has encouraged runners to heel-strike the ground, rather than land on the ball or front of the foot. If one looks at the theory of evolution, it is more than probable that the human foot has adapted itself to successful long distance running and this can only be hampered by wearing running shoes. There are serious studies underway at the moment, looking into this probability. Chris McDougall of Born to Run fame tried to find research and information on the benefits of wearing shoes for running. “I began drilling into running-shoe research, and the further I went, the less I found. There’s nothing there. Nothing. No evidence whatsoever that running shoes do anything....there is no evidence that #running shoes do anything to prevent injuries. None.” McDougall goes on to elaborate on what he calls the ‘fear factor’ when it comes to the running shoe manufacturing industry. “The entire multi-billion dollar industry is based on a campaign not of facts, but of fear. Fear that if you don’t buy a $175 sneaker and replace it every three months, you’ll ruin your knees.
HARVARD STUDY ON BAREFOOT RUNNING
Harvard University, the University of Glasgow and Moi University have produced a joint study. They looked at runners in Kenya and in the States, looking specifically at the gait of the runners and splitting them into three groups: those who had switched from shoe running to barefoot running, those who had always run barefoot and those who always ran in shoes. It was found that barefooted and minimal footwear runners landed on the middle of the foot or the ball of the foot and not the heel. Runners who wear shoes land on their heels and it is this heel-striking which can be the cause of injuries. Daniel Lieberman, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard states, “Running barefoot or in minimal shoes is fun but it uses different muscles. If you’ve been a heel-striker all your life, you have to transition slowly to build strength in your calf and foot muscles.” Lieberman went on to add, “People who don’t wear shoes when they run, have an astonishingly different strike. By landing in the middle or the front of the foot, barefoot runners have almost no impact collision, much less than most shoe runners generate when they heel-strike. Most people today think that barefoot running is dangerous and hurts, but actually you can run barefoot on the world’s hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort or pain. All you need is few callouses to avoid roughing up the skin of the foot. Further, it might be less injurious than the way some people run in shoes.”
THE PAIN ASSOCIATED WITH HEEL-STRIKING
It is estimated that 75% of shoe runners heel-strike. A shoe runner’s heel strikes the ground at least one thousand times for every mile run. Heel-striking for the barefooted runner or the runner in minimal shoes is exceptionally painful but barefoot runners naturally avoid landing on their heels and tend to point their toes and land with a spring. Lieberman et al, concluded that running shoes encourage heel-striking, possibly making runners prone to repetitive stress injuries but they also added that more research is needed to positively conclude that shoe runners are more likely to suffer from injuries such as runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis and stress fractures. Harvard research concluded that before the advent of the running shoe, runners landed in a variety of ways but mostly on their forefoot not on their heels, even when running downhill. Striking the ground with your forefoot rather than your heel greatly reduces the impact on the rest of the body.
The first person to make barefoot running famous was the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila who won the marathon in the 1960 Rome Olympics while running barefoot. It is said that Adidas had supplied him with shoes that were too small, so he decided to run barefoot. Brit Bruce Tulloh won the 5000 meters in the 1962 European games without shoes. India’s Sivnath Singh was a well known barefoot runner during the 1970s. South Africa’s claim to barefoot running fame is Zola Budd who won the World Cross Country Championships in 1985 and 1986.
SLOWLY INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO BAREFOOT RUNNING
If you want to try your hand at barefoot running, then follow a programme which slowly introduces you to this ancient practice. You will be using parts of your legs and feet which haven’t been used before, so it is wise to seek expert help in order to avoid unnecessary injury. So take off your shoes and put on your reflective running vest or reflective belt and see if it suits you. The first thing you will notice when you start running barefoot is that your stride will naturally shorten and that most of the time you will land lightly on either the ball of your foot or your forefoot.
Step 1 A really simple, but effective exercise to begin with is called 100-up. This exercise works almost all the muscles which you will use and helps prevent any injury. Remove your shoes and stand upright. Gently lift one leg, with knee bent at right angles, to hip height and put it gently back on the floor, forefoot first. Alternate between legs, swing your arms (with elbows bent) for a count of 50 per leg, keeping on the same spot. Once you have mastered the movement then you can increase the speed to a run on the spot, always ensuring that the forefoot touches the ground first. Heel-strikers will have tight Achilles tendons, so it is vital to daily stretch your Achilles tendons and calves for a couple of weeks before your first barefoot run to reduce the possibility of injury. Begin with short, slow walks until you get used to the feeling of the ground beneath your feet, making sure that your foot is landing forefoot first every time. Contrary to popular belief, barefoot runners do not have horribly calloused feet, in fact, the skin on the bottom of their feet is usually smooth and healthy looking due to the constant exfoliation from running. There are some excellent publications and websites which give detailed training programmes to slowly ease you into mastering this ancient art.
It is important to remember that moving from wearing running shoes to minimalist shoes is just as life changing as going from shoes to no shoes. If you put these shoes on and continue to run with the same gait and style, you will certainly sustain injuries. As with barefoot running, your feet and ankles need to be significantly strengthened along with your core. You need to make a very slow transition, perhaps incorporating walking barefoot around the house and garden every day. Purists do not like minimalist shoes and feel barefoot is the only way to go, but it is a matter of choice and can be used as a transition from running shoes to barefoot.
ADVANTAGES OF BAREFOOT RUNNING
Barefoot running strengthens the muscles throughout the foot and this is particularly helpful in preventing fallen arches. Medical research has shown that running barefoot can save up to 5% of your energy output, thus giving you stamina for longer. Anecdotal evidence suggests that running injuries are far less when running barefoot but the jury is still out on that one. However, one only has to look at people who run barefoot in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia and note the lack of running injuries, to see that there is probably something in it. Lastly, barefoot running is also a free reflexology session, massaging all those important pressure points on your feet and, finally, think of the money you will save on running shoes. This article was brought to you by Tuvizo, the reflective vest and reflective gear company.