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Barefoot Running – What’s the deal?

Barefoot RunningChances are that you have seen or heard of barefoot running – it is all the latest craze in running circles, and if the number of people wandering around in those funky looking toe shoes are any indication, CrossFit is far from immune to this “craze”.

And lets face it, with supporters of barefoot running claiming that it is a more natural way of running, it is a trend that is right up CrossFit’s functional/primal/paleo alley. As a physio I have to admit I’m a little wary of ‘fads’; so my first question is what does the science and research say about the issue?

The short answer is not very much. Australian Dr Craig Richards conducted a search of all the available research and literature aiming to locate any research that had been done to show the benefits of wearing running shoes. There was none. This comes on top of studies that have shown no identifiable difference in the comfort of runners wearing cheap vs expensive shoes (indicating that all the ‘technology’ that goes into making fancy sport shoes may not be worth much).

Forrest Gump with his Nike'sThere has also been no change found in running injury rates for runners who are prescribed shoes based on arch height and pronation when compared with those in a generic shoe. And despite all the technological advances and other claims of shoe producers, no real change in percentage rates of running injuries since the running boom of the 1970’s (where it all began – both the rise in popularity of running, and unsurprisingly the simultaneous explosion of the running shoe industry).

This brings us to what we do know. There has been extensive research conducted into the bio-mechanics of the running stride, both with and without shoes; and there are major differences between the two. Runners in shoes generally land on the ground heel first. This is because with a stable highly cushioned shoe, it is more comfortable, feels more stable and supported, and is easier on the muscles of the foot, ankle and calf.

Barefoot runners on the other hand tend to land on the middle or front of their foot (mid foot or forefoot strike). This is closer to the gait pattern normally observed in sprinting. As we speed up, we tend to strike the ground further forward on our feet. Other recent research into this has found that runners who habitually run barefoot (this means they have been doing it for a long time) have lower impact forces and loading at point of impact with the ground, which leads to a hypothesis that running barefoot may reduce injury rates.

Brilliant! Let’s all throw out our expensive running shoes, and commune with nature through our bare toes! Before we do, it is important to remember that this research was done on those who normally run shoe-less, and have been doing so for a long time, and there is as yet no hard evidence that injury rates are actually lower- however the preliminary findings do seem promising.

Barefoot RunningIf you are thinking of making a change, remember that when running without shoes, you are asking the muscles to do all the cushioning and stability work that was previously performed by your shoes. This takes time and training (just like you didn’t deadlift 100kg on your first session in the gym).

The conversion should be done gradually otherwise you will most definitely get injured. In fact there are two studies that have been done on runners who are transitioning from shoes to bare feet, and in both instances significantly higher rates of injury were found amongst the transitioning runners (up to six months post initiating the change, so its not a quick process) than runners in shoes.

So what’s the bottom line? The jury is still out. Based on best available current evidence neither bare feet, nor flashy feature packed shoes can claim to be the magic injury bullet. Stay tuned, in my next article I will look at the pros and cons of a forefoot strike running gait pattern, and help you decide wether it is worth making the switch…

You can part 2 of Jess’s article here

  • Not sure about the barefoot thing, as it is I’m still working with the NB minimalist and thinking of trying the nano 2.0… hmmm…

  • barefootrow

    in my sample of 1, i transitioned over a year ago but dont run often. it has helped with my knees and not caused any other problems plus made running more fun. If you go out of the blocks too hard you will get hurt though just like your heavy deadlift comparison. The problem can be as you have run 10k before in shoes you assume you can do it barefoot. i.e. may look like a deadlift and be called deadlifting but should be treated as a whole new movement. 

  • I’ve done a bit of barefoot running. It’s definitely worth giving it a go. Just stick to short runs and try to stay off gravel paths!
    By the way, what’s happened to the rewards system?

    • Hi Matt we had to suspend the rewards as it was causing countless problem. We were no longer being notified when people redeemed rewards, some people reporting it was not working for them and it now does not currently work with our commenting system. We hope to bring it back in asap as they assured me they are fixing all those issues. In the meantime keep commenting as we have some great rewards coming up and like picking regular Rx readers.

  • Samantha

    I went from “high stability” shoes to nike frees to running in vibrams. It was a very slow process and involved me re-learning how to run with a midfoot strike as opposed to a heel-strike. I admit, my calves were on fire and lots of strain on the soleus post run, but after a while, I found that the hip and knee pain I used to have as a runner disappeard. I still need to practice running in my vibrams but all in all, it’s been a good transition!

  • I bet those Barefoot runners could use some Climb On! Bar on those precious toes!

    • Awesome idea. I’ve been using the Climb On! lotion bar after tearing my hands doing a round of butterfly pullups this week. I cannot believe how well it works. Def a must for any CrossFitter.

      • It’s not just for CrossFitter’s either we set out to create a multiple purpose product for all over your body for all skin types and skin conditions.

        Know anyone with Eczema? That’s another top favorite use – soon we will have our 99 uses of Climb On! back on our site!

    • I might have to try some of this climb on stuff sounds interesting 😉

      • We sure think so, but we are bias! 100% Pure, All Natural, Made In USA!

  • great article. i’ve always been interested in knowing the real benefits–if any– of barefoot running. do you think the forefoot striking adapts your leg muscles i such a way that would benefit other movements like box jumps, etc.?

  • Pingback: Barefoot Running – Is it for you?()

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