Barefoot Running: Beneficial or Harmful?

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the benefits of barefoot running and training, but this by no means is a recent trend in training.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the benefits of barefoot running and training, but this by no means is a recent trend in training. Back in 1960 at the Rome Summer Olympic Games an Ethiopian runner by the name of Abebe Bikila gained fame by winning the marathon in a world-record time of 2:15:16 while running barefoot and who can forget the famed 3000 m race between favored American Mary Decker and her rival barefooted South African Zola Budd at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games with the two racers getting tangled up with only a few laps left and Decker falling into the infield.

Many people believe that Bikila’s accomplishment catapulted barefoot training into the mainstream, but in reality athletes had been training barefoot long before his accomplishments. To put this in a historical perspective, the modern running shoe was not invented until the 1970’s, however humans have been involved in endurance running for millions of years. For most of human evolutionary history, runners were either barefoot or they wore footwear that provided minimal cushioning or support such as sandals or moccasins.

Barefoot running was recently studied and research published by Lieberman in January of 2010 showing that barefoot runners tend to land on the balls of their feet, or at times flat-footed, compared to runners who wear shoes, who tend to land on their heels first. This is important because of the impact it has on the collision force as the foot hits the ground. The study showed that the initial impact force of the barefoot runner who landed on the forefoot first was approximately one-third that of the shod (shoe-wearing) heel-striker. Barefoot runners tend to point their toes more at landing which avoids the very large and sudden collision force that a heel-striker experiences. The study also found that barefoot runners have more flexible ankles, which may protect against stress injuries commonly found in running. One drawback to barefoot running is that it can cause runners to flex the foot in a way that creates more mincing steps, which shortens the stride. Because the stride is shortened a runner will end up taking more steps to finish a race which could potentially lead to injury, however you could also argue that the impact force is less so you are protecting yourself from injury.

One thing to remember when considering barefoot running, if you have been a shod runner your whole life, your body is used to the heel-striking associated with this type of running and barefoot running utilizes different muscles. You will have to transition slowly into a barefoot running program in order to build strength in your calf and foot muscles in order to support the new mechanics associated with barefoot running. It will be normal to feel some residual foot soreness after barefoot running, however if the soreness lasts for more than a day, if it is accompanied by sharp or shooting pain, or if it leads to sudden knee or back pain it is important to see a Sports Medicine Physician for an evaluation.

If you have any further questions about the benefits or drawbacks of barefoot running or any other sports medicine related questions please call the NovaCare Sports Medicine Hotline at (216) 956-9312 to speak with a Certified Athletic Trainer 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

Yours in Health,

Chris Hricik, MS, ATC
NovaCare Rehabilitation
Stow, OH 44224

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