Point-Counterpoint: Barefoot Running: Is It Here To Stay Or Just A Passing Fad?

By David W. Jenkins, DPM, FAAPSM, and Jeffrey A. Ross, DPM, MD

Barefoot running is here to stay.

Although there is no evidence demonstrating that barefoot running reduces injuries or improves performance, this author says many studies suggest unique, beneficial characteristics in the unshod runner.

By David W. Jenkins, DPM, FAAPSM

In the debate regarding barefoot running, advocates tout many advantages. Some of these are supported by evidence and some are anecdotal or based on logic. What follows is an overview of the so-called advantages of barefoot running and the currently available literature to this effect.

   Nonetheless, the final word on this topic is that there is no current evidence that barefoot running either reduces injuries or improves performance. However, there is also no evidence that it does not.

   Although barefoot running has been around as long as man has ambulated, a new interest has recently been stimulated in part by Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.1

   In the book, he discusses the exploits of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico and their ability to run ultramarathon distances with simple foot coverings. According to McDougall, the Tarahumara Indians reportedly have had few of the modern “running injuries” so commonplace in modern society.

   In fact, McDougall and other barefoot running advocates point out that the rate of running-related injuries has not improved and may instead be getting worse despite significant improvements in running shoes.2 The interest has also been fueled by Web sites packed with “studies” and much anecdotal testimony to the many benefits of running unshod.3

   Even prior to McDougall’s book, some researchers were investigating their belief that man is structurally designed to ambulate barefoot and biomechanical function is most efficient when unshod. They claim that years of highly supportive, motion-restricting and confining shoe gear have created an atrophy of the feet through disuse. In fact, researchers have noted that wearing shoes has resulted in greater impact forces and reduced proprioception.4-9

A Closer Look At Differences In Gait And Impact Forces

Gait differences. Before discussing some of the claims, it is important to point out that those who run barefoot have profound differences in their gait in comparison to those who run shod.

   The stride rate is higher and stride length is lower. Landing is farther forward with the ankle position more plantarflexed. The hip, knee and ankle all have a decreased range of motion in barefoot runners in comparison to shod runners. Contact and flight time are reduced in barefoot runners. These changes are very well supported by evidence and little argument exists that these changes take place.10-13

   What will become apparent as I review the touted advantages of barefoot running is that some investigators and barefoot running advocates have surmised that if these gait changes are occurring, then barefoot runners must have certain advantages.

   Reduced impact. Barefoot running advocates have claimed that the gait changes result in runners who are “lighter on their feet” and there is accordingly less jarring to the skeletal structure.

   Indeed, some investigators have found reduced ground reactive forces (impact) while runners are unshod and attribute this to an attenuation of forces in the musculature of the legs as well as a conversion of part of the lower limb’s translational kinetic energy into rotational kinetic energy.10,11,13,14

   Kurz and Stergiou believed that impact was in part reduced because an unshod foot, through its superior neurosensory feedback, was so much better at preparing the musculature for the next foot strike — the so-called coordinative strategy.15 They also believed the greater variability in the barefoot condition was a demonstration of this process.16

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