Barefoot Running For A Natural Style May Ward Off Injury But Is The Minimal Approach Right For Everyone?

In 2010, Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book ‘Born to Run’ began a ‘barefoot revolution’. In it, McDougall documents the incredible endurance of the Tarahumara, a tribe of Mexican Indians able to run for hundreds of miles without stopping. Their secret, McDougall concludes, is what they wear on their feet: not high-tech trainers, but barely-there strips of rubber fashioned into makeshift sandals. For the next few years, sales of minimalist footwear – seen as the high watermark of natural, injury-free running – skyrocketed. But it didn’t last.

Scan the startline of any race these days and you’ll see the usual, high-cushioned service has been resumed. Barefoot running is no longer en vogue – the modern man wants cushioned shoes with some serious sole. So, does that mean barefoot running was just an overhyped fad, or is it time runners reconsidered the minimalist approach?

Minimalist Shoes DO Promote More Efficient Running
Minimalist running shoes allow the foot to move naturally, often with nothing but a slither of rubber separating you from the ground. The resulting foot strike (literally the way your foot strikes the ground), barefoot believers argue, is the way we were ‘born to run’. While cushioned running shoes encourage the midfoot or heel hit the ground first, minimalist shoes promote more of a forefoot impact, which has long been seen as the most efficient way of running – largely because elite runners tend to be forefoot strikers.

The reasons most professionals land on their forefoot is because they run at a faster pace – it just makes biomechanical sense. But for us mere mortals travelling at a slower pace, heel striking is nothing to fear. In fact, it may even be the more efficient thing to do, as this study suggests. Instead of focusing on how your foot strikes the ground, it may be wiser to pay attention to where it strikes: aiming to land each step as close to your centre of mass (ie underneath your body) as possible.

‘Minimalist running shoes allow the foot to move naturally, with nothing but a slither of rubber between you and the ground’

Minimalist Shoes MAY Reduce The Risk Of Injury
Fans of minimalist shoes also argue that by promoting a more natural style of running, they reduce the risk of injury. That’s certainly what scientists from the University of Granada found when they studied the benefits of barefoot running over a 12-week period.

‘Forefoot support (metatarsal),’ said the study’s author, ‘tends to minimise impact peaks and, therefore, leads to a lower risk of injury.’ In other words, heel striking – regardless of whether it’s more or less efficient – creates a more jarring impact than landing on the forefoot, where the metatarsal is better designed to absorb the shock. But his debate is far from black and white, and it’s just as easy to find similar studies showing no, or indeed greater, injury risk associated with minimalist shoes. This one published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found ‘similar injury rates’ between barefoot and regular runners.

Minimalist Shoes CAN Strengthen Important Running Muscles
Sticking with the injury theme, minimalist shoes are also promoted for their supposed muscle-strengthening benefits. This study found barefoot runners to have stronger leg and foot muscles. It also stated that a mid/ forefoot strike strengthens the joints between the bones in the foot and toes.

The importance of having strong feet and ankles for running was long overlooked, but now it’s known that having a strong, stable point of impact protects the entire kinetic chain. If you have weak feet, your shins, knees and hips are going to be called upon to take some of the load, causing imbalances that both reduce running efficiency and, over time, lead to injury.

‘The most convincing argument for a cushioned shoe is it lets any runner of any ability truly enjoy running’

Cushioned Shoes DO Ensure Running Is Enjoyable
The simplest reason for the popularity of cushioned running shoes is that they enable runners of all abilities to truly enjoy running. As we have seen, barefoot running may well be better in the long run, but it requires a lengthy transition period that’s likely – for a time at least – to make the act of going for a run a highly technical and, at times, painful process. Cushioned shoes reduce impact and often contain added support to lock the foot and ankle in place – for most amateur runners, that makes for an altogether more enjoyable experience.

Cushioned Shoes ARE More Suited To Our Surroundings
Barefoot running is what our ancestors evolved to do – there’s no denying that. There’s also no denying some of the best runners in the world – the Kenyans (who often train barefoot) and the aforementioned Tarahumara – excel, in part, because their style of running is incredibly efficient. However, the soft, sandy paths of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, or the dirt tracks of Kenya’s Rift Valley, are a far cry from the concrete and tarmac that dominate the West. Much of the surface we spend our lives on is manmade and incredibly unforgiving – while running with cushioning underfoot might be unnatural, so are most of the surfaces we run on.

RSNG’s Verdict
If you have the time, inclination and dedication to becoming a barefoot runner, it may well improve your performance. But that’s a big ‘if’ – running for most of us is about the freedom and head-space it gives us. Barefoot running, by contrast, makes technique and biomechanics the priority, meaning you have to focus on detail and really work at it. For serious runners, that is no bad thing, but for the rest of us it may detract from the simple joy of running. As with most things, switching to minimalist running shoes has to be a personal choice, based on your own body, preferences and reasons for lacing up your trainers in the first place.

WHAT NEXT? Watch Christopher McDougall’s TED Talk on why we were Born to Run

Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.