Barefoot Versus Shod Running: Which Is Best?
As barefoot running gains popularity and the market sees the development of more minimalist shoes, podiatric physicians and athletes have debated barefoot running versus shod running, which is faster and which leads to less chance of injury. Accordingly, this author takes a closer look at the evidence with a focus on biomechanics and physiology.
Running is one of the most important forms of locomotion for the bipedal human. Early humans used the locomotor activity of running to hunt for prey, to escape from dangerous animals and to speed up communication with distant villages.1 Early recorded history also demonstrates that running was an important sporting event over 2,700 years ago. At the first Olympic Games, held in 776 BC in Olympia, Greece, there was only one athletic event, a 190 meter running race.2 In addition, Greek vases from the 5th to 6th century BC are decorated with images of running men.3 As such, running was not only an essential form of locomotion for our early ancestors but has also been a form of sport for thousands of years.
Even though it seems obvious that our earliest human ancestors walked and ran barefoot, early humans were wearing shoes for over a thousand generations. Erik Trinkaus, PhD, has estimated that our human ancestors began wearing shoes at least 40,000 years ago.4 The world’s oldest shoe, made of intricately woven sagebrush, has been radiocarbon dated as being 10,000 years old.5 The oldest surviving leather shoes, lace-up moccasins, have been radiocarbon dated to 3500 BC.6 Therefore, it is likely that our ancestors have used shoes for at least 10,000 to 40,000 years for walking, running and other weightbearing activities.
In modern society, however, running has become less of a means for obtaining food and escaping danger, and more of an activity for sport and exercise. Recreational running has been increasing in popularity ever since the 1970s with an estimated 15 million Americans running on a regular basis.7 In response to the surge in interest in running, running shoe manufacturers have developed a wide range of running shoe models made to allow runners to exercise both comfortably and safely.
Much of the early technological advancement in modern running shoes came during the 1970s when manufacturers began to make the running shoe midsoles with more shock-absorbing materials.8 Furthermore, in the early 1980s, running shoes began to feature “anti-pronation” features such as medial heel bars and dual-density midsoles that were designed to limit rearfoot pronation.9 Since the beginnings of the modern running shoe in the 1970s, the running shoes of today are now comprised of a multitude of advanced technologies including midsoles filled with air, gel and springs. These may or may not reduce the incidence of running injuries.
The concept that having running shoes with thicker, more cushioned midsoles is the best way to run has been under recent challenges with the publication of the book Born to Run. The author, Christopher McDougall, claims that since our early human ancestors all ran barefoot, then runners should be running either in thin-soled shoes or without shoes at all, and that there is no evidence that modern running shoes prevent injuries.10 A number of runners have since been inspired by the back to nature message of Born to Run and have begun to run barefoot or in thinner-soled running shoes. One of the most popular of these “minimalist” running shoes, the Vibram FiveFingers shoe, even has five toe sleeves to mimic the barefoot condition.
For those podiatrists who treat running injuries and give running shoe recommendations, the subjects of barefoot running and minimalist shoes have been growing topics of conversation with runner-patients for the past few years. Certainly, podiatrists should be aware of the research evidence in regard to barefoot running, minimalist shoes and traditional running shoes so their treatment and shoe recommendations for their patients are current.