By Cary Groner
For many years, barefoot runners existed at the periphery of the competitive athletic community. There were occasional appearances by runners like Zola Budd, the South African who set a slew of world records in the mid-1980s while running barefoot. But since running became a sport for the masses in the 1970s, almost everyone has done their training and competing in the padded-sole shoes developed then by running-shoe companies and refined ever since.
Recently, however, advocates for running barefoot — or in the "minimalist footwear" recently introduced by a variety of manufacturers — have made a vocal case that minimalist running is more natural, given that this is how people got around for the first million years of our evolution. The movement gained momentum from Christopher McDougall's 2009 book, Born to Run, about Mexico's Tarahumara people, who, for hundreds of years, have run two-day races through the mountains wearing nothing on their feet but lace-up sandals.
Minimalist running advocates point out that these and other people, such as Kenyan tribesmen, who traditionally run long distances without fancy shoes, have relatively low injury rates. Contrast that with modern runners in high-tech shoes, who suffer different types of knee pain (often patellofemoral pain or iliotibial (IT) band syndrome), and other maladies at high rates despite all that cushioning and support. It sounds like a logical choice to revert back to the way our ancestors ran, right? Some clinicians, trainers and athletes think so, but many others don't. Here's what you need to know about the debate to make a decision for yourself.
Early in 2010, a Harvard researcher published a paper demonstrating how modern running shoes, with their padded heels, create a sharp force, or "impact transient," when the runner strikes the ground with their heel. By contrast, those who run barefoot or without much padding instinctively land with a midfoot or forefoot strike. This provides a softer landing with a more moderate impact; it also leads to shorter strides. On the surface, it sounds like these changes should be good for you. But are they?
The problem with the great shoe debate, some experts say, is that runners may simply be trading one kind of injury for another. For one thing, research doesn't support the notion that high impact transients correlate with injury rates. For another, stress is stress; the body weight moving over your legs and feet doesn't decrease when you take off your shoes, so runners who shift from standard shoes to minimalist running may simply redistribute those stresses to different areas. Experts suspect that the knee injuries common to shod runners may decrease, but then reappear as foot and lower leg problems. In other words, given what we know about biomechanics, your patellofemoral pain may get better, but you may develop heel pain (plantar fasciitis), pain in the Achilles tendon or stress fractures of some foot bones (metatarsals) instead. And indeed, these complaints appear frequently on blogs about minimalist running.
Athletes have been aware of these issues for decades, as it turns out. Coaches have long had runners do part of their training barefoot, because it strengthens and toughens the feet. But such workouts have always been done on grass, or at most on a relatively soft track. Almost no one puts in long barefoot miles on pavement, with its hard, even surface, its broken glass, its dog droppings and its sundry other hazards. Even Zola Budd did about half her training wearing shoes and never ran barefoot on the street. The concern physicians and trainers express has less to do with minimalist running than with the fundamentalist zeal with which it has been embraced by those who are fanatical about it.
On the other hand, running shoes do cradle the foot in a way that makes all landings more or less the same, and trainers see this as a problem too. Variety is the spice of life, and it's also one way the body avoids injury. If you do the same motion the same way too many times, you're asking for trouble, whether you do piecework in a factory or run marathons. Minimalist footwear, particularly if worn on uneven surfaces such as trails, makes it easier for the foot to land in a slightly different position with each step, and this turns out to be good for you.
A lower heel may also decrease the risk of ankle sprains if you land awkwardly on a rock while on one of those trails. It's a matter of simple leverage; if your foot turns outward when there's just a quarter inch of material beneath it, the torque forces are much lower than if you land the same way on the same rock with an inch of padding under your heel.
Despite what has been a fractious debate, the two sides are approaching consensus on some issues. Most experts now agree that it can be helpful to do some of your training barefoot or in minimalist footwear, just as track coaches have always advised. But if you do, listen to those old coaches and start slowly; for that matter, if you have access to a coach or trainer, seek his or her guidance. One fairly standard approach is to increase your minimalist running by no more than 10 percent a week, and to keep your "natural" running to a natural surface, or the closest you can get (grass playing fields and golf courses are favorites). You should also back off right away if you experience pain in new places, not only for the obvious reasons, but also because compensating for those new aches can lead to additional problems such as low-back pain and knee and hip injuries.
Experts also agree that spending a lot of time barefoot as a kid likely has a protective effect, because your muscles get trained in those movements early on, when it counts. Unfortunately, there's no way you can arrange that retroactively unless you've mastered time travel. But if you remember happy childhood summers running carefree through the fields without any shoes on, you've kept your weight in check and you've continued to spend at least some time barefoot since, you may be at lower risk than your cousin in New York City who's worn shoes every day of his life and now weighs 250 pounds. Even if you are that cousin, though, there's still time to give your kids a leg up.
Published March 12, 2012.
Cary Groner is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His recent novel, "Exiles," placed fourth on the Chicago Tribune's list of the best books of 2011.