By Elly Field, BA. Updated July 2013.
While you were getting in shape this
summer, you might have considered switching to barefoot running, the latest craze. Despite personal testimonials from many runners, there is no conclusive research on the advantages or disadvantages of running barefoot compared to running with shoes. In fact, research shows that barefoot running may not be the best choice for many runners. Here’s what you need to know about barefoot and minimalist running.
What is so different about barefoot running?
Studies show that running barefoot changes the stride and strike pattern of runners, even highly trained runners. When running barefoot, runners will often naturally alter their stride to land first on the balls of their feet or towards the middle of the feet, called a forefoot strike. In modern running shoes, on the other hand, most runners will strike first with their heel, because the shoes have greater height and cushioning in the heel, which softens the impact. Minimalist running shoes mimic the feeling of running barefoot, while adding some protection for runners’ feet.
Much of the hype around barefoot running claims that this pattern change helps people run better, longer, and with fewer injuries, because the forefoot strike is a more efficient pattern that reduces the shock and load on the body. But, research that has examined the effects of barefoot running does not conclusively show that barefoot running is better for injuries or efficiency than heel strike running.
Potential harms of barefoot running
Several studies have shown that forefoot strike running increases the load on the feet, ankles, Achilles tendons, and calf muscles. One study by a group of Australian researchers published in 2013 found that forefoot strike running increases the work done at the ankle by 16-19%. Another 2013 study by researchers at the National Taiwan Normal University found an increased level of activity in the large muscle on the back of the calf, which could increase the chances of calf injury compared to heel strike running. Together, these studies suggest that barefoot running may increase the likelihood for a runner to experience soreness or injury. That’s why researchers advise that people with a history of pain or injury in any of these areas should be cautious when considering barefoot running. However, this increased load in the foot and ankle also means that barefoot running may be a good option for people looking to strengthen the muscles in these areas.
Potential benefits of barefoot running
Research has also shown that forefoot strike running may decrease the load on the knees and the amount of shock absorbed by the body. The Australian researchers found that forefoot strike running decreased the load on the knee by between 19-24% . This suggests that switching to a forefoot strike running pattern may be beneficial to some runners with knee pain or injury.
A 2012 study by researchers at the University of Nevada found that, compared to barefoot running and forefoot strike running with shoes, the runners’ bodies absorbed the largest impact when heel strike running with shoes. The researchers at the National Taiwan Normal University also found that with forefoot strike running, the impact of hitting the running surface will be more spread out, thus reducing the amount of shock felt by the body and reducing injuries.
Running speed and endurance with barefoot running
In May 2013, a study by researchers from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst concluded that there was no difference in the running efficiency between forefoot or rear foot strikers when they ran their preferred pattern, but they also found that when habitual rear foot strikers ran with a forefoot strike, they used significantly more oxygen and expended more energy.
However, a study by Warne and Warrington from Dublin City University published in 2012 examined 15 trained male runners who switched to minimalist running shoes for 4 weeks before testing their stride and efficiency again with minimalist shoes. The researchers found that the runners had significantly improved their running economy after the 4 weeks of forefoot strike running, as measured by oxygen consumption, blood lactate samples, stride frequency, heart rate, and other tests. The researchers concluded that the 6.9% increase in running efficiency was largely related to the effects of the 4 week training period with minimalist running shoes. The two studies differ significantly in their samples and methods; most notably, the Warne and Warrington study’s use of the 4 week training period may partly explain why the two studies had such different conclusions. More research must be conducted on these running strike patterns before we can conclude what style of running is more efficient.
The most important research finding
Several studies on barefoot running emphasize the importance of a training period when transitioning to barefoot running. Most people’s bodies will need time to adjust to this new style of running, because barefoot running involves more load on the calves, Achilles tendon, ankles, and feet. When beginning barefoot running, you must start very slowly and give your body a long time to adapt to the increased use of your lower leg muscles. As mentioned above, barefoot running can be used to strengthen the muscles in these areas, but you must go slowly to avoid injury. There are no established guidelines on how to transition to barefoot or minimalist running, but a study by researchers at New York University published in May 2013 recommended that runners transitioning to a forefoot strike should not run long distances on their first attempts. The researchers emphasized that a training and transition period is a slow and necessary process for barefoot or minimalist running.
Financial costs of barefoot running
Barefoot running should be inexpensive, since you don’t need shoes! But if you do not stick to a slow and steady transition period, you may end up paying much more to treat injuries. Minimalist shoes are an option for runners who are transitioning to a forefoot strike pattern, but want to protect their feet from the ground and the elements. However, one study found that some minimalist shoes did not replicate the mechanics of running barefoot, so if you decide to purchase minimalist running shoes, be aware that new shoes alone may not be enough to change your running style. Minimalist running shoes cost about as much as many mid-range regular running shoes. As with regular running shoes, fit should come first when making a decision on what kind of shoes to buy.
The bottom line
There is no conclusive evidence on whether barefoot or minimalist running is better than traditional running shoes, but some studies have shown that runners may benefit from switching to a forefoot strike running pattern. People with a history of foot, ankle, Achilles tendon, or calf injuries, however, should be very cautious when considering barefoot running. On the other hand, people with knee pain or people looking to decrease the impact shock of running may want to consider trying barefoot running. The most important lesson from the research so far is that people who want to change their stride must do so slowly and carefully to avoid injury. Keep in mind that you need to give yourself an extended transition period before you attempt a long race.
If you are interested in reading more about running and starting a new exercise routine, read this helpful article by the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund here!
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