Is barefoot running right for me?

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Recently, a resurgence of barefoot running has led many a runner to question what they put on their own feet. Why the sudden increase in popularity? What are minimalist running shoes, anyway? Are they for everyone? Let’s look at some of these questions in more detail.


A brief history.


A quick search of the Internet will find that barefoot running is not that new. In 1960, barefoot running became more main stream after people saw Abebe Bikila run barefoot. More notably, Bikila won the Olympic Marathon in Rome without the use of running shoes. More recently in 2009, barefoot running received attention after Christopher McDougall wrote a book, Born to Run, in which he highlighted the positive effects of running without shoes.



What are minimalist ‘barefoot’ running shoes?


What makes a minimalist shoe different from a conventional running shoe?


Minimalist shoes, as the name implies, are minimal – lacking of padding or support that either influences or biases the motions occurring at or around the foot.


Conventional running shoes fall into three categories: neutral/cushion, stability control, or motion control.


Asics Running Shoe


A shoe that is defined, as neutral/cushion, has no biases or material that controls how the foot interacts with the ground. These particular shoes are best suited for runners who have high arch heights and that demonstrate minimal changes in arch height during running.  These runners also spend more time on the lateral, or outer edge, of their foot. More cushioning is needed in these shoes to help disperse forces that are emitted during running.


A stability control shoe provides mild pronation control for runners who have and maintain a normal arch during running. These runners are efficient runners who have some pronation of the foot that helps to decrease shock during running. Conversely, a motion control shoe is the exact opposite. These shoes are for those with low arch heights and who tend to pronate or spend a majority of time on the medial or inside of their foot during running. These shoes tend to have material on the inner arch that reduces the foot’s ability to roll towards the inside during their running stride.


Vibram Five Fingers Barefoot Running Shoe


Minimalist shoes do not have any of the characteristics noted above. In addition, these shoes have no change in rear foot to forefoot height. A conventional running shoe may demonstrate a 10-13mm change in rearfoot to forefoot height, where as a minimalist shoes may have as little as 1mm difference. This means conventional running shoes offer a more cushioned and controlled stride. Minimalist shoes also lack any material that may influence how the foot interacts with the ground in which the runner is impacting. As a result, the runner has to change his or her mechanics in order to influence how these forces are dispersed up the kinetic chain. 


Woman running on road in conventional running shoes.  


Are minimalist ‘barefoot’ running shoes for everyone?


Minimalist shoes may not be for every runner. Running without shoes is an adaptive learning process. Conventional running shoes and minimalist shoes create different running strides.

Conventional running is a series of heel strikes, toe offs and float phases. The runner’s heel hits the ground, forces are emitted up the runner’s legs, the foot and leg interacts with the ground, the foot rolls inward to assist with forward progression, then finally the runner pushes off the toes to propel themselves forward.


           Woman running along road. 


Barefoot running differs vastly from conventional running. Barefoot running consists of midfoot to forefoot strikes, toes offs and float phases. The runner midfoot/forefoot strikes the ground, quickly transfers weight forward allowing for a faster toe off and progression of forward motion, followed by a float phase. With minimalist running shoes, the runner typically has a faster cadence, quicker leg turnover, and decreased time in which their foot is in contact with the ground.


Vibram Five Fingers 


As a result of theses changes in running mechanics, minimalist shoes are not for everyone looking to strap on a pair of running shoes. Those who have previous injuries involving the foot, ankle, knee or hip should consult with a medical professional prior to beginning any running program, especially one in which minimalist shoes will be involved. In addition, minimalist shoes do not disperse forces as well as conventional running shoes or help influence how the runner’s foot interacts with the ground.


Therefore, those interested in using minimalist running shoes should tread lightly.


Working with a medical professional who has experience with minimalist running shoes can help greatly reduce injuries resulting from improper training. Also establishing a running program, strength training routine, and flexibility regime can help reduce injuries resulting from the use of these shoes. Whichever approach to running is selected, having a plan and listening to your body is imperative.


By having a plan, running without shoes is a possibility.


*Matthew Ammons is a doctor of physical therapy and practices at Tidewater Physical Therapy’s Redmill clinic in Virginia Beach.

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