As a Physical Therapist working in a sports medicine setting, I see my fair share of running injuries and lately the question about the pros and cons of barefoot running inevitably comes up.
The most common reason for runners to change running style or footwear is an injury or pain. Pain during or after running is usually caused by poor mechanics, overtraining or a combination of both. A study in the Journal of Sports Medicine revealed an increase in running injuries with the growing popularity of running and tri-athlon’s, rating the incidence of injuries anywhere between 37% and 56% annually. (These are only the injuries reported. For some, unknown reason, a lot of runners and tri-athletes think it’s perfectly normal to hurt while running and don’t even consider the fact that they may be injured or injuring themselves).
Most injuries seem to be caused by cumulative microtrauma or overuse. Several risk factors have been identified as predisposing athletes to their injuries and intrinsic as well as extrinisic factors have been reported in studies (such as the 2006 edition of the American Journal of Sports Medicine: “Interaction of arch type and footwear on running mechanics”). Some of these factors include arch type, running mechanics, type of running shoe, surface run on etc. The running shoe provides a unique interface between these intrinsic and extrinsic factors and should not automatically be blamed for all break downs.
A recent study from the University of Delaware showed that athletes who run with a natural midfoot strike pattern have lower loading rates then habitual rearfoot strikers, but the key difference may be the stride length! They found that trying to tell the runners to run consciously with a midfoot strike pattern did not seem to reduce loading rates but shortening their stride did. Other gait studies have shown that barefoot runners who land on their forefoot produce smaller peak impact forces than rearfoot strikers wearing running shoes. Barefoot running has also been shown to decrease joint torques in the hip, knee and ankle joints, however, running shoe compliance may offset the increase in torque.
Just like changing the tires on your care may or may not improve the performance of your car, changing shoes, or getting rid of them all together, may or may not improve the quality and ability of your body to withstand the forces of running. The only agreement you’ll find in all the literature about barefoot running is that it works for some and not for others. Going barefoot has to be accompanied by a change in running mechanics or your body will break down. For some this will come naturally while for others it will never come.
So, if you’re going to change your running mechanics anyway, why not keep your shoes on and focus on your mechanics! I realize that this is easier said than done but it will in the long run be a much more durable and appropriate solution for most.
Some alternatives to consider are barefoot training in small doses, which will also decrease the worry about the running surface. You can do your barefoot training on an indoor or outdoor track, not having to worry about glass or nails causing injuries. There is also a running technique described as “chi-running” which combines the benefits of Tai-Chi and running and is a method of focusing on stride length, cadence and running mechanics. For more information go to: www.Chirunning.com
If you are considering going the “barefoot route” due to persistent or nagging injuries, consider having your injuries and their cause evaluated first. See your running coach or go to a running store for a proper gait analysis or see a trained Physical Therapist with expertise in running and gait analysis.
Solving your biomechanical problems first will solve your pain and this will lead to the most effective and efficient running style for your feet. Be it barefoot or with wooden shoes!