I am sure that you are well aware that the barefoot running shoes have received a lot of attention in the media over the past few years – but despite the attention only 25%-30% of runners have reported using minimalist footwear regularly.
The most common justifications for barefoot running are:
1. It’s the “natural” way to run.
2. It prevents running injuries.
3. It helps you run faster.
4. It strengthens the muscles of your feet.
So – in order to find out if any of the above is true we should talk about each one.
While it is likely that our running style has changed over the years there isn’t much evidence to connect shoes with the changes. Shoes have been worn for a long long time – and even though the construction of shoes has changed over the years, the rate of injuries in runners has not.
So, considering those things here is what makes the most sense:
1. Shoes are not related to injuries.
2. Shoe features are addressing the wrong factors.
Minimalist (or Barefoot) Running Prevents Injury
The theory about how minimalist running prevents injury is based the following:
1. It reduces impact
2. It reduces the load at the knee
Both of the above claims are based on the presumption that the mechanics of running is changed with minimalist running. It basically means that running without shoes (or with minimalist shoes) results in a midfoot or forefoot strike pattern, instead of the usual heel strike. That being said only 40%-50% of individuals who run barefoot actually adopt the midfoot or forefoot strike pattern, so the their claims cannot be valid for all runners.
The fact is that by changing the strike pattern, the impact of running can be removed from the lower leg, and moved to the foot. In fact, foot stress fractures have been related to increased loads – so all it’s really doing is MAYBE moving stress from one area to another.
If the logic is that reducing load in 1 structure will decrease injury, then increasing load in another structure should increase risk of injury…and it is yet to be determined if either of these is true.
There is evidence to suggest that short foot exercises can increase the size of the foot muscles; however, there is no evidence to suggest that barefoot walking or running has the same effect.
It is also important to remember that there are muscles outside of the foot that have a significant role in foot and ankle control while running or walking. These muscles are actually longer and have greater capabilities than the muscles inside the foot.
The last thing to consider is that there is very little change in foot muscle activity after running – whether the person was running with or without shoes, and no difference at all between shoes on and shoes off.
Barefoot/minimalist running – although a popular topic of discussion – is not very prevalent among runners. The fact of the matter is that there is little data to support the fact that barefoot (or minimalist) running as a training tool or treatment for injury. If there is continued study on the potential risks and benefits of this technique we will better be able to determine its usefulness.
If you are a barefoot/minimalist runner I would love to hear about your personal experiences. Data can tell us one thing, but personal experience can determine another. Please share your stories with me, I am very curious to know individual results. Leave a comment below!