by Danny Abshire, co-founder, Newton Running
People have been experimenting with barefoot running for a long time, but in recent years the activity has gained mainstream notoriety and science-based credibility.
Most coaches, elite athletes, physiologists and other medical experts agree that running barefoot in very small doses on soft surfaces can help improve your running mechanics and teach your body to land lightly at your midfoot, but they also agree that you should wear some kind of running shoes most of the time.
“Throw your shoes away for good? Sure, if you have perfect mechanics and you’ve been living barefoot all of your life,” says Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, a West Virginia University professor and 2:25 marathoner who has studied barefoot and minimalist runners in relation to running injuries. “But that’s not the majority of runners. Most runners absolutely need to wear shoes when they run.”
What Shoe Type is Best?
If you’re used to running in a traditional training shoe with a built-up heel, running barefoot can be a fascinating experience of freedom and can be the first step in developing natural running mechanics. Running unshod your foot naturally seeks out the ground by landing at the midfoot/forefoot, where it receives sensory interaction, or afferent feedback.
This sensory input immediately tells the rest of the body how to move efficiently with light footsteps, a high leg cadence, a relaxed but consistent arm swing, an upright posture and a slight forward lean from the ankles. This same feedback can be gained while wearing some types of lightweight shoes, but traditional trainers with thick levels of foam dampen the sensory interaction and make it much harder to interpret the ground, especially with the heel-striking gait those shoes promote.
How Run “Barefoot” in Shoes
Landing lightly at your midfoot and picking up your foot quickly to start a new stride is the most effective way your body knows to propel and protect itself while running. Conversely, your body generally doesn’t allow you to land on your heel if you’re running barefoot (especially on a hard surface) because it isn’t engineered to accommodate the blunt force trauma of repeated heel striking.
True, the calcaneus (heel) bone is a large bone, but it was designed to take the lower impacts of a walking gait and help balance the body as it rolls forward, as well as to help support and balance the body in a standing position as the rear point of a tripod.
Accepting large impacts on the heel bone from heel-strike running on the roads barefoot sends tremendous shockwaves (or impact transients) up your body. Those impact transients can have numerous negative affects upstream as your body tries to offset that force and remain balanced, including various forms of tendinitis, illiotibial band strains and adverse sheering in the pelvis and lower spine.
“It’s no different than somebody hitting you on the heel with a sledgehammer with 300 to 400 pounds of force,” says Dr. Daniel Lieberman, the Harvard University evolutionary biologist who concluded in a study released in January 2010 that running with midfoot footstrikes, either barefoot or in shoes, is better and less impactful than heel-striking. “So if you’re going to do that, it makes sense to wear shoes. A shoe makes that comfortable. A shoe essentially slows that rate of loading enormously — by about sevenfold in a typical shoe — and that’s what makes it comfortable and that’s why a lot of people can wear shoes and heel-strike.”