BAREFOOT RUNNING DEBATE

barefoot running

The Hot debate of barefoot running or using one of the latest hi-tech running shoes, has still been going on and is one that draws mixed opinions not only amongst health care professionals, but also track and field coaches. Does it help injuries ? or maybe it makes them worse ? Having had both my knees quite battered through years of running and also trying these two alternatives to ordinary footwear, I thought I would throw in my two pence and share with you my own experience of this topic.


History

The concept of barefoot running is not really the latest trend. It has been around even longer than it seems to be and it became even more prominent during 1960 Olympics, when Abebe Bikila won marathon, running barefoot. In the 80’s it was Zola Budd, barefoot runner from South Africa. Recently, you probably have seen people wearing minimalist shoes, weird-looking footwear with “toes” instead of conventional footwear with closed toe box, although minimalist or barefoot running shoes also come with closed toe box. Much of the mainstream popularity for this kind of footwear, was created by Christopher McDougall in his bestseller “Born to Run”.


Why Barefoot ?

According to Christopher McDougall, running barefoot improves your gait cycle and promotes better or a more efficient gait. Kinematic & kinetic analyses indicate that even on hard surfaces, barefoot runners generate smaller collision forces. Runners will land on their mid and forefoot, as oppose to landing on their heel and rear foot, which is promoted by most of traditional running shoes. “Heel strike” puts much bigger forces through the lower extremities and into the spinal column. The forefoot landing reduces the forces through the lower extremities and spine on impact, creating a smoother and gentler transition to the next cycle. It creates more gliding-like pattern, instead of pounding the ground and springing forward. Recent studies also report that running in shoes requires greater rates of oxygen consumption when compared to running barefoot. The studies report on average 2.0 % greater VO2 for shod running as opposed to barefoot running.


Bare Foot Vs Shoes – My Own Experience

 
barefoot-vs-running-shoes
 
From my own experience, I can say that wearing barefoot or minimalistic kind of shoes, if you prefer, can be very beneficial, but it could also work the opposite way and might make your injuries even worse if you are not careful. Being involved in Olympic Wrestling for most of my life, funnily enough, the main cause of my knee injuries was running, not wrestling. Today we know that those old methods of conditioning wrestlers in the off-season with marathon distance runs on concrete roads, were not much of a benefit anyway. Also bear in mind that obtaining and affording a proper pair of running shoes in 80’s, in a one of the Eastern European Countries, was next to impossible. The best choice you had, was a pair of Chinese tennis shoes, but… the job had to be done. These experiences put me through a few keyhole procedures of removing and smoothing the

cheap running shoes from 80's

cartilage in my knees. While high end walking and running shoes always promise many benefits, in my case they would make no difference to an ordinary footwear with a decent cushioning. On the other hand, trying on barefoot shoes, appeared to work a miracle for my knees. However, when running, they seemed to make a big difference only on softer, grass-like surfaces, not concrete hard roads. My first attempt of running in bare footwear on the asphalt, ended up in limping after 5 kilometres. Running on the hard surface road in barefoot shoes, seemed to double pounding forces and resulted in making my knee injury even worse, so going back to the shoes with a good arch support and cushioning to support impact, was the obvious choice for hard surfaces runs. It simply resulted in less pain, more comfortable and longer runs in comparison to barefoot shoes.


What Does Research Say ?

While you always find someone who will want to prove you wrong, quite a few studies indeed confirm: lower contact and flight time, higher braking and pushing impulses, lower passive peak force, or higher pre-activation of calf muscles. While researching for the evidence of benefits of barefoot running, the most sensible answer I found, which also in a certain way fits my personal experience, was by Stuart Warden, associate professor and director of research in the Department of Physical Therapy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. According to Warden, the reason running bare foot could increase or decrease runners injuries, largely depends whether you grew up running in standard athletic shoes or barefoot. The heel cushions and arch supports within

running-science

modern shoes, have made our feet weaker, Warden said. Increased support in these shoes, causes that the muscles don’t need to work as much as they would otherwise, making them grow weaker. So a rapid switching to running in minimalistic shoes, could do more damage than good. The key is to transition to barefoot running gradually and make sure you run correctly. By building up to it, you could decrease the risk of injury in a long term. “Those suffering repeated running-related injuries that can’t overcome them with rehabilitation, might want to consider switching to barefoot running”, Warden said. For those who run in shoes without any problems, there is no need to switch.


Conclusion

I would say, give it a try. Although I use running shoes when facing running on the asphalt, I can’t imagine not wearing minimalist footwear in any other circumstances. It might also work for you, or it might not, we and our injuries are all different. Our bodies are quite a complicated structure that many times doesn’t like changes to the alignments it grew into, even if these alignments are not anatomically perfect. But whether you decide to wear high end running Nike shoe, or run barefoot, always make sure you properly condition your joints before attempting long distance runs. This is when most people get it wrong. They might have a “great cardio” which will let them run a marathon distance, but their joints will fail because of lack of proper pre-conditioning.


References

Oxygen cost of running barefoot vs. running shod

Mechanical comparison of barefoot and shod running

Foot strike patterns and collision forces…

Is your prescription of distance running…


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