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Why You Should Run Barefoot
By Rick Morris
Everything seems to run through roller coaster like cycles. Our weather follows an up and down pattern of hot and cold; drought and freakishly wet periods. The stock market moves up and down throughout time. Running trends also follow that pattern, including the recent trend towards barefoot running. In the very early years of running nearly all athletes ran barefoot. Even in the more recent past of 30 to 40 years ago most runners ran in very minimal and light shoes. Then the high tech age hit with its over engineered and over supportive shoes. With those high tech shoes came the high pressure marketing that convinced runners they needed high levels of support and conditioning. Now runners, coaches and scientists are finding that those over engineered and restrictive running shoes may be causing more problems than they solve.
Does that mean that you should start running barefoot? I firmly believe that some barefoot running would improve both your running performance and injury resistance. You certainly don't need to go out and run your next marathon barefoot, nor should you without sufficient barefoot conditioning, but there are several reasons you should consider running barefoot.
One of the greatest benefits of barefoot running is related to injury resistance. Highly supportive running shoes don't let your feet operate the way they were intended. Wearing a support shoe is similar to putting a cast on your lower leg. It prevents your lower leg muscles from moving through their full and natural range of motion. In addition the shoes reduce your sensory feedback or ability to "feel" your stride. As a result your lower leg muscles become weak and vulnerable to injury; especially lower leg injuries such as shin splints and stress fractures.
A study from 1987 showed that injury rates to the lower leg are substantially higher among shod runners when compared to barefoot runners. That same study suggested that barefoot running makes adaptations that transfers strain from your plantar fascia to the more yielding attached muscle, helping you avoid the dreaded plantar fasciitis injury. Another study from 1986 said that a barefoot running stride gives a softer landing which helps avoid many running injuries including shin splints. The softer, more efficient mid foot landing, combined with greater sensory feedback and the stronger lower leg muscles that barefoot running provides you will make you a more injury resistant runner.
Injury resistance isn't the only reason you should do some barefoot running. Barefoot running also improves your running performance and running efficiency. One of the components of an efficient running stride is a high degree of leg or "leg spring" stiffness. Think of it in terms of a spring. A stiffer spring will store and return more energy than a soft spring. Your leg muscles and tendons operate in a similar manner. If your leg muscles have a higher degree of stiffness at the moment of foot touchdown they will store and return more elastic energy and you will run more efficiently. Barefoot running will increase your leg stiffness. A biomechanical analysis of the stance phase of barefoot versus shod running concluded that: "A significantly higher leg stiffness during the stance phase was found for the barefoot condition". Another recent study from France looked at the differences between barefoot and shod running. They found that: "The mechanical modifications of running showed that the main role of the shoe was to attenuate the foot-ground impact by adding dampening material. However, these changes may lead to a decrease of the storage and restitution of elastic energy capacity which could explain the lower net efficiency reported in shod running." In other words, running shoes make you less efficient.
So, by all means, start doing some barefoot running. You will become a more efficient and injury resistant runner.
Running related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations, Med Sci Sports Exerc., 1987 Apr;19(2):148-56
Kinematically mediated effects of sports shoe design: a review, Int Jour Sports Med, 4, 169-84
Biomechanical analysis of the stance phase during barefoot and shod running, J Biomech, 2000 Mar;33(3):269-78
Barefoot-shod running differences: shoe or mass effect?, Int J Sports Med. 2008 Jun;29(6):512:8
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