Is Barefoot Running Safe?

Vibram FiveFingers

Humans have been running barefoot since the beginning of mankind. After all, we weren’t born wearing shoes. So what’s the current fascination with running barefoot?

There is a debate on whether or not barefoot running, or natural running is good for our soles and feet. Barefoot running or running with minimalist “barefoot” shoes have become extremely popular over the last few years. You may see runners wearing thin shoes or “glove-like” shoes which mimic being barefoot. After decades of running with high tech shoes, elite runners started to question the effectiveness of wearing shoes at all, except for a thin layer of protection. This brought about the exploding barefoot or minimalist phenomenon. But which is better: Shoes or no shoes?

There have been multiple studies fueling the debate. Early chatter was prompted by a Harvard University study in 2010 that focused on foot strike patterns and the impact of running barefoot or with shoes. The study showed that people were able to land safely when in barefoot footwear by landing first with the ball of the foot before striking their heels. Runners in regular cushioned sneakers more likely landed on their heels first when their foot hit the ground.

A newer study published earlier this year showed results involving two groups of runners: those that ran with minimalist (barefoot) shoes and those that ran with regular shoes. After a 10 week follow up, it tested the two groups: The results of the study showed more than half of those runners wearing minimalist (barefoot) shoes showed an increased likelihood of bone injuries. They were more prone to swelling around the bone, and some resulted in stress fractures. However, more research is needed to provide conclusive evidence.

What does all this mean? With various studies, there is not enough conclusive evidence to determine if natural running is better or harmful. More importantly, if you want to start running naturally, it’s best to start gradually to reduce risk of injury. Muscles in your feet, calves and legs may have to overwork. Stress on the plantar fascia and on the Achilles tendon is increased, so it’s key to ease into this activity. You should know your limits. Complete barefoot (without any minimalist shoe) may result in further injury, like being prone to sharp objects or burning when running on a hot surface

The barefoot running debate has prompted the need for further research in understanding what is truly healthier for our feet. If you are prone to injury, or are a beginner, consult with your doctor. If you feel discomfort, ease into this activity, and do not over do it. Remember, although this method may have worked well with our ancestors, our modern day feet may need a gradual transition.