Could Barefoot Running Cost You Your Health?

Is running barefoot better for you than running with sneakers? It’s a question I’ve been asked often in the last few years, and thanks to some new research presented at the recent American College of Sports Medicine conference, we may be closer to an answer.

The main theory behind barefoot running (or wearing minimalist footwear) is that it’s a more natural way to run. After all, our ancestors got around without the aid of souped-up sneakers—they didn’t have arch supports, cushioning air pockets or other fancy footwear technology. Back then, they ran barefoot, and because of this, they ran differently—they landed on the ball of their foot or their mid-foot, which is a more efficient way to run, say experts. Today, the sneakers we wear promote a different type of running: Most of us land heel first (called heel strike), then roll up onto our toes before taking our next stride. Proponents of barefoot running say heel striking can slow us down and is tougher on the body than when we land on our forefoot.

So, is there something to barefoot running or is this just another fitness fad? Two recent studies suggest there are indeed some benefits. One found that when runners went sans sneakers, they didn’t breathe as heavily and didn’t feel as tired afterwards as when they did the same workout with sneakers. Another study indicates that runners were faster when they kicked off their kicks.

However, there is a downside. Although some earlier research suggests barefoot running can help reduce the risk of injuries that commonly affect runners, a study presented at the conference found that barefoot runners are more likely to suffer injuries like calf pain and tendinitis, particularly when they first make the switch to no shoes.

If you have an orthopedic condition, like foot or ankle problems, you probably don’t want to try it at all. Still, you may be able to reap some of the benefits simply by changing the way you land when you run. First, try walking around the house barefoot to see if you change to a toe-heel-toe motion; you can try to copy this technique when running with running shoes. Another option: Look into minimalist footwear options, which may offer similar benefits to barefoot running.

Do you have any interest in trying barefoot running?

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