Is Barefoot Running Better for You and the Environment?

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As far as hot-button topics among athletes and medical experts go, barefoot running is as contentious as they come, either improving your performance or increasing the risk of injury. In the wake of Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book, Born To Run, the shoeless craze might come off as just another passing hippie fad. Then again, the athletic shoe wasn’t invented until the 1970s, which means that for most of human evolutionary history, people ran barefoot or with minimal footwear like sandals or moccasins. Does that mean we’re conditioned to pound the pavement au naturel? Well yes and no, says Stuart Warden, director of physical-therapy research at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who tackled the subject earlier this month at the American College of Sports Medicine meeting in Denver.

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Photo by Pete Markham

RUNNING WILD

At the symposium “Barefoot Running: So Easy, a Caveman Did It,” Warden cautioned that going shoeless can increase or decrease the risk of running-related injuries, depending on whether you grew up wearing fancy athletic trainers or not. “The heel cushions and arch supports within modern shoes have made our feet weaker,” Warden says. “The foot has so much support in these shoes that the muscles don’t need to work as much as they would otherwise and have grown weaker.”

Going shoeless can increase the risk of running-related injuries if you grew up wearing trainers.

It’s true that our shoes shape the way we move, according to a recent review in The Journal of Foot and Ankle Research. Not only do young children in shoes have longer strides than when they’re barefoot, note the researchers, but they also land with more force on their heels.

BACK TO BASICS

Daniel E. Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, penned a study in the journal Nature last year on the differing biomechanics of shoe-bound versus barefoot runners in the United States and Kenya. Barefoot runners, he found, experience less impact because they strike the ground with the balls of their feet first, rather than their heels, which increases collision shock and stress fractures.

Throwing away your shoes doesn’t magically give you proper barefoot-running form.

In other words, being one with nature is better for the body in theory, but only if your feet haven’t adapted to the cushy interior of a well-padded sneaker. Throwing away your shoes doesn’t magically give you proper barefoot-running form. “Running barefoot or in minimal shoes is fun but uses different muscles,” says Lieberman. “If you’ve been a heel-striker all your life you have to transition slowly to build strength in your calf and foot muscles.”

IUPUI’s Warden advises aspiring barefoot runners to make the transition slowly correctly, so you decrease the risk of injury over the long-term. If you’re a recreational runner who suffers few injuries in shoes, there’s no reason to ditch. “There is no point in changing something that is not broken,” Warden says.

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3 Responses to “Is Barefoot Running Better for You and the Environment?”

  1. BarefootEnergetics says:

    A very balanced summary here. Well done.

    I had problems running in shoes (mainly recurring cycles of shin splints) back in my 20s, so I more or less quit running for about 20 years. I started running again, barefoot, about 2.5 years ago and actually find myself enjoying it and looking forward to it much more than I ever did when I ran in shoes. I always run on a track, however, just as I did when I ran in shoes. I take at least warm-up lap while walking to see if I spot any potential hazards. In three years and some 800 miles of cumulative barefoot mileage, I have not been injured once. As a bonus that I never got when shoe-running, my feet feel so much more alive and functional as I exercise and even as I go about my daily business.

    I did what to make a comment on the “hippie” reference you made as well. Just as modern running shoes didn’t appear on the scene until the early 1970s, hippies didn’t appear on the scene until the late 1960s. No one could accuse barefoot Olympic marathon winner Abebe Bikila of being a “hippie,” for example, because hippies did not exist in 1960.

    But many, many people from all walks of life were going barefoot before hippies – including a Republican congressman from Kansas. (Google “Not all barefooters are bandits” to read more.) The need for natural foot exercise predates the sociological phenomenon known as “hippies,” but I do think some people in the early 21st century, unfortunately, make the “barefoot-hippie” association almost immediately and won’t allow themselves to explore barefoot activities because of that self-imposed stumbling block.

    More at http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/190591

  2. DPatterson says:

    AS Homer Simpson whould say “DUH”. Of course it is better for both you and the environment. For you – your muscles get work and your body migrates to a less stress invoking gait pattern. Be cautious and transitioin into this slowly. use a propriocpetive insole like Barefoot Sceince

    For the environmnet – less material is used therefore less consumption, the closer to correct gait mreans your shoes do not wear out as fast and do not need to be replaced as much. less consumption is better for the planet. In fact – maybe overall we should consider consuming less of eveything. Is the IPhoine 4 really that much better than the I Phone 3 – better enough to contribute to global destruction?

  3. MissChievousRN says:

    im a nurse and a barefoot runner, i wear vibrams at work and if i run outdoors but prefer to run completely bare on a treadmill
    i argue the health and safety issue daily with colleagues and strangers on a nearly daily basis
    all i can say is:
    1. ive NEVER had an injury since i switched to barefoot, shoes just messed me up
    2. work your way up SLOWLY and sensibly- your feet and legs and hips are WEAK and damaged from “shoes”, you need to heal and re-educate your body
    3. not many “professionals” have ANY real facts to base their opinions on- try it and YOU WILL have your own facts and own truth
    MY truth is that nature created my feet to walk, run, jump, and play- binding your feet into fancy little foot coffins just doesnt make any logical sense at all

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