'Barefoot running' - what's all the fuss about?

Clients frequently ask me about how to choose a pair of running shoes. A colleague of mine, Matt Phillips, has written an excellent article about this very subject – I highly recommend it. (He’s also provided useful feedback on this blog post, for which I’m grateful!)

In this blog, I’m going to take a closer look at one particular kind of shoe. I’m going to examine some of the myths surrounding the recent trend towards “barefoot” and minimalist running. If you’re considering ditching your cushioned trainers – read this first!

People have been running barefoot for most of human history. Specialist running shoes are a relatively recent invention, first appearing in the 19th century. As the technology developed, from the 1970s onwards, cushioning was increasingly added to try to protect the lower limb from impact forces.

Some people suggested that cushioned shoes encouraged people to land on their heel (“heel striking”), rather than their forefoot, because they no longer needed to use the muscles of the foot to absorb the impact from the ground. They argued that this results in a less biomechanically sound, less efficient style of running; one that puts more strain on the joints of the lower limb, and leaves people prone to chronic overuse injuries as well as weakening foot muscles.

By the time Chris McDougall published his bestselling book “Born to Run” in 2009, which helped to spread the minimalist shoe revolution, various companies were already manufacturing “barefoot” running shoes: lightweight, minimalist footwear that eschew cushioning in favour of promoting a more “natural” style of running.

There’s now a selection of such shoes available, ranging from so-called “barefoot shoes” which offer only a very thin sole, no arch support and a “zero drop” (meaning that there is no difference in height between the heel and the toe), to shoes that are more of a hybrid between “barefoot shoes” and traditional running shoes, with a little more cushioning and heel elevation.

In some circles, though, this enthusiasm for barefoot running became a dogma, with the insistence that it was uniformly better, more efficient, and healthier. The argument in favour of a barefoot running style sounds convincing; but is it?

We all love a good story: it’s easy to get carried away and find ourselves nodding along in agreement. The idea that a return to nature can free us from the ills that the modern world has inflicted upon us is one that has an instinctive appeal. But - is there actually any evidence to back this up?

First, let’s clarify what we’re talking about. Most of us aren’t going to literally run barefoot very often; pebbles, stray broken glass, adverse weather conditions, and strange looks from passers by are enough to dissuade all but the most committed. But the term “barefoot running” is often used to mean running with a “barefoot style” forefoot strike while wearing minimalist shoes. Although these two things are sometimes confused, they aren’t the same. One study suggests that despite the marketing of some shoe companies, running mechanics vary considerably between barefoot and even the most minimalist footwear.

The claim that running in minimalist footwear makes people more efficient and less prone to injury is one that can be tested experimentally, and several such studies have been carried out.

A systematic review about barefoot running, published in 2014 found that “barefoot style” running, whether barefoot or in minimalist shoes, does appear to be associated with lower impact forces, but there’s no clear evidence that this leads to a reduction in injury rates, and it appears to be no more efficient.

To summarise: if you are happy with the way you are currently running, there doesn’t appear to be an evidence based reason to change.

So, is it time to throw away the minimalist shoes and dismiss barefoot running as just another fad?

Maybe not just yet. If you look carefully at the data, there’s a lot of individual variability there. While the research doesn’t support the dogma that barefoot is best for everyone, it may indeed turn out to be better for some people, depending on a complicated combination of factors such as foot type, running technique, conditioning and pre-existing injuries. As podiatrist Craig Payne has pointed out “Different running forms and different foot strike patterns load different tissues differently.” Or to quote Matt Phillips, “it is highly unlikely there is one optimum way of running, but we can tweak form to shift load, even if it is just whilst the body recovers”.

In other words: one size doesn’t fit all, and your mileage may vary. While Alice may find that transitioning to a barefoot style of running takes stress off an old knee injury, Bob might discover that instead, it flares up his plantar fasciitis.

While anyone can throw on a pair of minimalist running shoes, an important factor is the mechanics of the person wearing them. Changing running technique isn’t always easy, and it takes time; both to change the ingrained motor patterns, and to build the specific physical conditioning needed for the new pattern. For a heel striker used to running 30 miles a week in heavily cushioned trainers, changing to a forefoot strike will be demanding on the muscles of the foot and calf. Switching abruptly to a set of minimalist shoes and trying to do the same mileage is likely to be a recipe for trouble. Any change needs to be made gradually, taking care to make sure that the new technique is learned correctly. Since there’s no guarantee that the new way of running will be an improvement, this is an investment of time and effort that not every runner will want to make.

However, it seems that some people do get on better with a minimalist running style. If your current running style is causing you problems (for whatever reason) then it might be worth trying an alternative; it’s possible that switching to a pair of minimalist shoes and a forefoot strike might make a difference for you. There’s no easy way to tell, other than trying it. If you’re suffering from pain, I’d recommend speaking to a qualified physical therapist, podiatrist or experienced running coach for advice before making a decision.

If you decide that you do want to make the transition, there are a few basic principles that you should follow.

(1) Focus more on your technique than the footwear. Be prepared to invest time in re-training your running mechanics. If you’re not sure how to go about it, some coaching might be a worthwhile investment.

(2) Make the change gradually. Start by running only short distances in minimalist shoes, and increase that slowly as your body adapts. “Too much, too soon” is a common cause of injury.

(3) If you start to develop pain, then consider consulting a running injury specialist who can give you individual advice.

Good luck!

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