When meeting someone for the first time and they learn that I’m a podiatrist one of the first questions is what’s a good shoe for me to wear. It could be specifically for their work, tennis, hiking or running. In this blog, I will go where few podiatrists usually shy away from. I’m going against the grain as a foot specialist and arguing for why you should consider barefoot running. However, I’ll also discuss why it may not be best for everyone and why that is the case.
The idea of barefoot running has become more popular in recent years because in the ultra-marathon world, 100-mile races, runners from the remote Mexican tribe the Tarahumara native Mexican tribe were showing up and dominating these events. They were doing this with no shoes. Instead, they wore rubber bottom shoes from tires and leather straps for the tops. Christopher McDougall is the author of a book, Born to Run published in 2009. Motivated by recurring running injuries he had studied the Tarahumara tribe and found adopted barefoot running and his injuries were reduced. Earlier versions of the shoes were all rubber. This is in contrast to the modern running shoes whose basic structure was inspired by Nike and its founder Phil Knight. Here are some differences between barefoot, sometimes referred to as a zero drop shoe. Incorporating this change will help in getting barefoot running benefits even when you cannot actually be barefoot due to the terrain or environment not being skin friendly.
Conventional running shoes are built with more cushioning built in the sole. Most shoes today are use EVA form versus rubber soles and some specialized sports shoes have air pockets. EVA serves as a cushioning material in footwear, commonly found in the midsole of shoes due to its exceptional shock-absorbing properties. When you engage in running, EVA effectively softens the impact on your feet, providing a comfortable and protective experience. Additionally, EVA foam stands out for its remarkable durability, ensuring longevity in the lifespan of the shoe. This material is resilient even in extreme temperatures, further contributing to its reliability and suitability for various environmental conditions. Zero drop shoes have a much smaller layer of EVA or rubber insoles.
A conventional shoe has a lift in the shoe because the sole under the heel is thinker then it is under the ball of the foot. With barefoot shoes there is no lift, which means the incline is removed and provide the heel and toes the same plane to push off the ground or surface beneath.
Generally, a barefoot shoe may be wider to allow for more spreading of the foot and toes while running. This is very important as to the next point, it provides better weight distribution, grip and keeps the toes dry due to improved air passage between the toes.
Barefoot shoes are much lighter weight then regular running shoes. Adding weight at the bottom distorts the ability of the ankle, knee and hip when moving. Think of holding a weight and trying to attempt a simple task! While it may not seem heavy, consider the time spent wearing shoes and how it would be a constant weight. You don’t want to carry around a small set of weights everyday.
The biomechanics of running barefoot
Some would argue that running barefoot requires you to run more naturally.
This means landing the foot on the ball of the foot or midfoot rather than on the heel. Studies have shown that landing on your foot in this way reduces the impact to the body, especially the knee and hip compared to landing on the heel.
Running barefoot may also increase the strength of the muscles in the arch and around the ankle joint because they are now activated more to create stability when you’re not landing on your heel.
when running barefoot the increased strength in the foot and ankle muscles will also make your ankle more stable, possibly less prone to ankle sprains.
Nervous system improvement
This is often neglected in the discussion of running barefoot versus regular shoes. There are many nerves ending on the bottom of the foot that give us feedback regarding foot position in space, referred to as proprioception. When barefoot running you’ll feel the irregularities of the surface you’re running on much more. This feedback automatically gives your brain feedback so that you’re better able to respond to these small irregularities.
Some will argue that your posture while running barefoot is better than in regular shoes. In regular shoes you will tend to lean back to allow your heel to make contact with the ground first. This may lead to more back, hip and knee pain. The elevation of the heel may also lead to a tighter Achilles tendon.
Barefoot running benefits
- Reduced risk of knee and hip injuries.
- Stronger foot and ankle muscles – may lead to less ankle sprains.
- Improved sensitivity to the running surface – reduction of injuries.
- Less shoe irritation to foot deformities- because a barefoot shoe has a wider toe box foot deformities such as bunions and hammertoes are less likely to be affected.
Note:- However, it’s essential to note that barefoot running may not be suitable for everyone. Factors such as terrain and individual health conditions should be considered if you are diabetic or just need to protect your feet.
For those intrigued by the benefits but unable to embrace barefoot running entirely, a compromise could be found with a treadmill. Whether in a home gym, backyard, or park, the controlled environment offers a chance to experience some of the advantages while protecting the feet, particularly for individuals with diabetes or those who need extra foot protection.