Is Barefoot Running Right for YOU?
Over the last few years, this question has been common among fitness enthusiasts and in my clients who are runners. Much of the idea originating from a book titled, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, that told us the story of the blissful Tarahumara Indians, who, Isolated by Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons have honed the ability to run hundreds of miles without rest or injury.
Leigh Mills and I chose this as our topic for tonight’s fitness segment tonight both because we want to help you understand whether or not barefoot running is right for you, but also because it persists as a good example of how a fitness fad can confuse people, and in this case, lead them down the wrong running path.
No question that barefoot running is working for the Tarahumara Indians, the author of the book, and for many others who have adopted this technique with success. For the rest of us, however, the idea that barefoot running might be more beneficial is questionable and complex. Complex because just like so many other health and fitness options, the right program, technique, or strategy for you, very often looks very different from the needs of someone else. Mostly, because we are all individuals with different body types, different fitness levels, different ages, different goals, and ultimately different movement patterns. Most of us, for example, have not been isolated in the canyons.
When it comes to the available research on the topic of whether or not there is a best way to run, there is inadequate information to draw any kind of meaningful conclusion. And yet we find a proliferation now of those funny little shoes with the individual toes. And I have witnessed on many occasions people running with these ‘barefoot shoes’ and yet still striking the ground in a dangerously abrupt gate pattern likely to cause real problems for them over time.
Iain Hunter, a biomechanics researcher at Brigham Young University and who works directly with USA Track and Field had an opportunity tackle these questions last Spring when he filmed world class runners in action during the 10,000 meter Olympic Trials. His video, which you can find inside the New York Times article I used to put together this post, is revealing. Because what you see is that each athlete that passes the camera hits the ground in his own unique way. As such, in his research Dr Hunter did not find any correlation with how each athlete’s foot hit the ground and their overall performance.
More specifically to the barefoot question, another biomechanics researcher, Rodger Kram of the University of Colorado sought to answer the specific question about whether or not barefoot running is better than running in shoes.
Proponents of barefoot running say that it is more efficient and more natural, resulting in an increased efficiency. Some of this argument has come from the ideas set forth in the book I mentioned in the first paragraph, and some comes from the idea that when you wear a shoe, you require extra energy to lift the shoes and that the added cushioning in the shoe actually absorbs force that could be used otherwise to propel you forward.
While barefoot running might provide that increased efficiency for world class athletes who are finely tuned and who have expert control over their entire kinetic chain, and who can move their body along without causing damage, the idea that this method of running is better or more efficient for non-elite runners has simply not held up. And in my professional opinion a bit dangerous.
When you run barefoot, you are forced to move from striking the ground with your heal first, to hitting the ground with your mid or forefoot first instead. However, as quoted in the New York Times Article, Dr Kram states that “those who eulogize the benefits of barefoot running and and as an extention the idea that a midfoot or forefoot gate pattern is more efficient ignore three studies showing that this is in fact not the case. In addition, Dr Hunter who was mentioned earlier in this post has found that the very fastest distance runners are often heel strikers.
This does still leave the question about whether or not the cushioning in a show actually slows people down. And in a study published this year by Dr. Kram, results showed that runners wearing light-weight shoes were actually more efficient than the barefoot running subjects.
What Does this Mean for YOU?
What this means for you is that just like with any other fitness fad that comes along, you need to be very careful and cautious about whether or not what is being recommended is actually right for you and your body. For example, in the case of the barefoot running, does barefoot running really make sense if you’ve never run before, you are unfit, or if you are carrying an extra 30-50 pounds? Probably not.
What you really need to do if you want to find the most efficient running path, is to have your running gate (the scientific pattern of your running stride and foot strike) evaluated by a professional who can then go about recommending the right kind of foot strike and in turn, running shoe. Otherwise, you will likely find yourself with just another fitness gadget in the form of some expensive shoes with impossible to clean toes taking up more space in your closet. Space that could be used more efficiently by some other more appropriate gadget. Like a neoprene knee brace.