Shocked by the Barefoot Running Phenomenon

There has been a lot of debate over the recent spike in barefoot running across the world. It’s undoubtedly an interesting subject. Just take a look at the running, podiatry and pedorthic footwear blogs, Facebook and Twitter posts. They’re littered with respectful discussion, heated arguments and somewhat scientific claims. Regardless of which belief system you hold regarding the biomechanical benefits of footwear, barefoot running is quickly gaining ground in worldwide acceptance.

The other day, Dr. Doug Richie Jr. DPM, FACFAS, wrote a blog post on the Podiatry Today website, entitled “Are We Born to Run Barefoot?” In Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, he cites the barefoot running technique he learned from the Tarahumara Indian tribe as leading to his successful 50 mile ultra marathon completion. Although impressive, Richie cites McDougall’s healthy diet and significant weight loss as being significant components of his relief from Achilles, hamstring and ankle sprains. Isolating the pain relief from practicing barefoot running may or may not have been responsible for McDougall’s pain-free running success. Regardless of your personal viewpoint on the matter, footwear does have its benefits.

Consider the dangers of barefoot running…

Although seemingly “free” and “natural”, running without supportive footwear exposes your feet to significant danger. Unless running on sand or grass, which offers a soft and comfortable surface joints & bones to absorb shock, running on asphalt and concrete is not so kind. Rocks, glass and other debris can be avoided to some degree with a keen eye on the road, but these items undoubtedly present the risk of tissue trauma to the plantar surface of the feet. I doubt anybody would argue against the belief that footwear does a good job at protecting ones feet against road debris. It’s the biomechanical strain on the bones of the foot, ankle and knees during barefoot running that’s being debated heavily in the running, podiatry and pedorthic communities. What’s your take on the subject? Let’s discuss…

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4 thoughts on “Shocked by the Barefoot Running Phenomenon

  1. Hello Tamarack, my take on the subject is that I have been running exclusively barefoot for 7 years, about 90% on paved streets. I’ve run 6 10K races, a half-marathon and 2 marathons barefoot, in 3:36 and 3:32. My 10K PR is 38:59. Before starting to run barefoot I was a very casual runner in shoes: once or twice a week and no more than about 10 miles/week. Rather than spout questionable jargon about human evolution or the superiority of barefoot running form, or closeness to nature, which you can find in “Born to Run” if you like, I will just say that I really enjoy running barefoot, much more than I ever did in shoes; and enjoyment and personal satisfaction is why I’m doing this, not to set any world speed or endurance records, although I do get enjoyment out of setting PRs. And, let’s face it, running in our society is a recreational activity. Recreation means enjoyment. I do this because I enjoy it! If nothing else, there is health benefit from doing something you enjoy. I cannot speak to any other health benefits or hazards.

    • When I read criticisms like Dr Richie’s of barefoot running and “Born to Run” I wonder if he actually read any of the book. There is actually only one person in the book who runs barefoot, Ted McDonald. The ultrarunning protagonists of the book, the Tarahumara indians of N. Mexico, run in minimalist Huaraches (sandals).

      The point McDougall makes extensively and repeatedly is that the running form of relaxed flexed knees, with forefoot strikes under the center of gravity, and quick cadence is what minimizes injury and make running much more enjoyable. His main complaint against modern cushioned stability shoes promote a heel strike which induces much greater stress on the lower extremity. Barefoot running forces the runner into a proper form because bad form barefoot gives immediate feedback in the form of discomfort and pain. Read the book, especially Ch 23-26 to get an overview of his argument and evidence.

      Running barefoot on a soft surface does not help correct form as much since tactile feedback is lost. Minimalist running is not a new concept, for example, read the 1991 booklet, “Running Fast and Injury Free” by the famous British runner and coach, Gordon Pirie (http://speedendurance.com/2009/09/22/running-fast-and-injury-free-by-gordon-pirie/).

      From my own layman’s experience. I was a runner 15 yrs and 20 lbs ago. Many attempts over the years to start running again was thwarted by knee pain, despite recommended stability shoes with custom orthotics, and yes, losing weight. In January of this year I read an article on minimalist shoes and thought it made since (I am a primary care healthcare practitioner and see a lot of orthopedic injuries). I started running in Vibram five fingers in January and now I am up to 3 mi, three times a week with NO knee pain. A large part of this has been working hard to change from my old heavy heel striking form. I run 0.5mi barefoot runs 2 or 3 times a week additionally to work on my form. Barefoot running requires a very slow acclimation period, but is worth it. It is just fun and feels great! It is interesting how much I can tell about my form when barefoot that even the Vibrams mask. For example I tend to slightly push off and drag my third toes when I am tired. I am not aware of this in the Vibrams at all.

      David

      • David, thanks for posting your reaction to our barefoot running blog post. Your explanation about foot strike and running form makes good sense. As the barefoot running craze grows, we want to make sure people are careful about the terrain they’re covering on their runs to avoid skin tissue injury, muscle and joint trauma. This is especially crucial for diabetics, who may be suffering from early stage neuropathy and can’t sense the ground to know what they’re body is trying to tell them.

        Run safe – Thanks for reading the Inside Tamarack Blog!

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