Is Barefoot Running Safe?

To answer a question with a question, is shod running safe?

One of the main reasons people become interested in barefoot running is the promise of reduced injuries. The truth is that like any sport, barefoot running has certain risks associated with it. Just taking off your shoes does not make you a barefoot runner.

Learning to run barefoot means slowly getting your feet used to going without padding, and undoing a lifetime of bad habits learned from running shod. Once your form is perfected and you muscled have become used to being used as they were intended, then all signs point to reduced injuries. If, however the transition period is rushed or poorly performed, the risk of injury remains and in some cases even increase.

Where’s the research?

This is a fair question. Asking people to give up shoes with no evidence of reduced injury, or increased performance is crazy. In truth, there haven’t been a lot of studies done to prove unequivocably that running barefoot reduces injuries. On the other hand, there are equally few in support of modern running shoes doing the same.

There has been some work done in this area, however, and early results are promising. There is a now famous study by Dr Dan Lieberman of Harvard University that shows that barefoot running reduces the impact forces of running far better than a shod runner who heel-strikes. The study is very interesting, as is Dr Lieberman’s website. Recently, Podiatry Today released an article about Tackling the 10 Myths of Barefoot Running which uses these and other resources to quell most of the major myths about barefoot running injuries.

With regards to the Shoe companies’ research, it would appear thar there is none, or at least non published. An article published by Craig Richards of Newcastle University, Australia found that there was basically no evidence in any published work that showed that running shoes reduce injury. I haven’t found an online version yet, but the study can be found in the Journal of Sports Medicine:

C E Richards, P J Magin and R Callister. 2008. Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence-based?,
Br J Sports Med 2009 43: 159-162 originally published online April 18, 2008 (doi:10.1136/bjsm.2008.046680)

Is it best to tranistion to barefoot via minimalist shoes?

This is a point of some contention among barefoot runners. Barefoot purists would insist that any shoe, however thin or flexible, is a hinderance as it will block some of the signals that your feet are receiving from the ground. Others would argue that feet that are used to having shoes on need to be carefully eased into barefoot running, and these sorts of shoes are ideal. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

The jump from shod to barefoot is a big one, with a steep learning curve. It takes dedication and practice and will at first likely be painful in parts. The benefits, however are that you are more likely to quickly pick up good form, as barefooting is relatively unforgiving. The major drawback of jumping straight in is that your feet are overloaded with signals that your mind will interpret as pain. In theory this is a great learning tool, but in practice it’s likely to cause many new barefooters to reconsider the sport completely, often never to return.

By using a minimalist shoe as an intermediate step, one can effectively reduce the pain signals received during the learning process and get more enjoyment out of ‘barefoot’ running. This is one of the major reasons why minimalist shoes have been so widely received. Unfortunately, injuries become much more likely as with even a thin sole between your feet and the ground, the feedback you get will be greatly reduced. To overcome this, the new minimalist runner must really focus on form above all else and pay very close attention to the few signals that are being received.

All-in-all it’s up to you which way you choose to go, but with either method, it’s important to start slow, listen to your feet and legs, and above all, enjoy it!