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When It Comes to Running, Is Barefoot Better?

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At the 1960 summer Olympic Games in Rome, an Ethiopian man named Abebe Bikila won the marathon with a record-breaking time of 2:15:16—and he did it without wearing any shoes. 


Bikila won the first of his two Olympic gold medals while running barefoot, like many runners in Africa do. Humans have been running barefoot for millennia, and although footwear has been standard for centuries, it’s only in the past thirty years that humans (especially Westerners) have become accustomed to the idea of wearing bulky, supportive athletic shoes. Barefoot running is a growing trend within the athletic community, and believers say that when it comes to running shoes, less is definitely more. 


Stuck in the Shoe Trap
Ultimately, modern running shoes are unnatural, forcing feet to move and flex in abnormal ways. Up until the 1960s, athletic shoes had simple, flat soles, like Converse All-Stars. In 1972, Bill Bowerman, the founder of Nike, created the modern running shoe, fabricated from plastic and polymers, based on the idea that a better sneaker would correct incorrect movements. Nowadays, running shoes cushion heels and they prevent feet from pronating or rolling side to side. Shoe designers spend millions of dollars to research the most common mistakes in a runner’s form and the most common injuries, and they try to design shoes that prevent or correct most problems. Yet despite all the technology surrounding running shoes, there is no evidence that proves running shoes make an athlete less prone to injury. 


Many exercise physiologists and podiatrists feel that humans simply don’t need to wear shoes at all. The human foot is a marvel of engineering, with twenty-four bones that work in perfect concert to give humans our distinctive upright walk. When we’re barefoot, most people naturally walk in a biomechanically correct gait—it’s putting on shoes that negates those millions of years of evolution and possibly even causes our running injuries. Many avid runners have begun to run barefoot, citing studies that show barefoot runners tend to have far fewer injuries like ankle sprains and plantar fasciitis than traditionally-shod runners do. On the other hand, barefoot running allows the foot to flex and absorb shock exactly the way it was meant to, and barefoot runners have been shown to have a more efficient gait. 


Michael Warburton, an Australian physical therapist, is the author of the 2001 paper “Barefoot Running.” According to his research, the extra weight added by athletic shoes results in significantly higher energy expenditures. The weight of an average pair of running shoes makes a runner up to 5 percent less efficient, even worse than if they weighed a few extra pounds. When you’re barefoot, the body’s biofeedback system can sense and react to changes in road surfaces, allowing the runner to moderate their stride, impact, and the movements of bones and tendons in the leg unconsciously. This affords a runner some extra protection against injury, and wearing shoes, along with socks and layers of foam and padding, makes this feedback loop impossible. Studies have shown that barefoot runners are able to monitor instinctually the force with which their feet strike the ground, while runners in shoes consistently land with more force than necessary, shocking the joints. The excessive heel padding in most running shoes also places feet at an awkward angle, and forces runners to land heel-first, which causes more impact than a natural mid-foot strike. 


The shoes themselves might lead runners to develop habits like rolling and pronation (how the body distributes weight as it cycles through the gait). Many studies have documented that runners wearing cheap, flimsy shoes experience far fewer injuries than those wearing expensive support shoes. In countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, where runners regularly run barefoot, running-related injuries are very few. A 2007 article in the podiatric journal The Foot also reported that in a study of three separate population groups—Zulu, Sotho, and Europeans—the often-barefoot Zulu had the healthiest feet. The Europeans’ feet were the least healthy. 


Free Your Phalanges
Humans have evolved to run barefoot, but feet haven’t quite evolved to run on today’s hard and unforgiving road surfaces. So the dilemma is to run barefoot and reap the joint-protecting benefits, or wear running shoes and protect the soles of the feet from injury. The solution for many is a hybrid barefoot shoe, constructed especially to recreate the experience of running barefoot while protecting the soles of the feet from pavement, gravel, glass, and other hazards. While major shoe companies, including Nike, are developing lightweight low-support running shoes, the Vibram FiveFingers are the gold standard among runners. To encourage the digits to spread out and grip the ground the way we do when we’re barefoot, they provide a rubber sole and individual pockets for toes. They encourage a completely natural motion and the most efficient, low-impact stride. They don’t provide shock absorption, but they protect the soles of the feet and allow the most authentic barefoot running experience, whether on trails, pavement, or treadmills. They’re waterproof and suitable for yoga, surfing, hiking, or climbing. 


Despite the benefits, some people should not run barefoot, including those with severe foot problems, whose natural gait may already be compromised. Flat feet, fallen arches, or other foot problems can cause pain if a sufferer tries to run barefoot. Diabetics, also, are cautioned not to begin a barefoot running regimen. Peripheral neuropathy is a common complication from diabetes, and this loss of sensation in the feet can leave diabetics susceptible to injuries. 


For runners who want to try going barefoot (or want to graduate to a barefoot-simulating shoe), experts recommend starting slowly. Barefoot running utilizes different muscles, and jumping in too quickly can result in injured calves and Achilles tendons. Warburton recommends thirty minutes of daily barefoot activity to begin engaging the muscles and ligaments needed for running, as well as some ankle and foot-strengthening exercises like walking on the balls of the feet. For those who want to run truly barefoot, a few weeks should be enough for the skin on the soles of the feet to thicken and callus to protect from small puncture wounds. 


For the majority of non-runners, even a little time spent barefoot can be beneficial. Many podiatrists and sports medicine practitioners, whether or not they agree about barefoot running, can concede that people spend too much time in confining, unnatural shoes and not enough time barefoot, allowing the feet and ankles to work as nature intended. Even walking barefoot for a few minutes a day can be enough to strengthen the muscles that shoes allow to atrophy. Going barefoot may not be for everyone, but it might be the most comfortable and pain-free way to exercise—just as nature intended.  

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