Do I recommend barefoot running? The answer to this is an unequivocal perhaps. Let me explain why.
The real issues are these: why should anyone consider barefoot running? And is it better to do so? Whether or not I recommend it is not really relevant. It is just a personal opinion. What matters is what the evidence on barefoot running says and, in my view, the jury is still out on this question. I will come back to that later.
Why should anyone consider barefoot running?
First of all, why would anyone consider running without shoes? When I started running as a teenager I had an old pair of cheap plimsols, as we called them in England – a pair of lace up shoes with a thin sole providing very little cushioning. At some point my parents read about the stresses and strains put on the various joints during running and worried about the development of my teenage body, they hurried out to buy some proper running shoes for me. Ironically, in their haste, they failed to realize – or nobody advised them – that you can still buy the wrong sort of running shoe; but that is a different issue. They were concerned with cushioning and the shoe they bought me certainly provided plenty of that.
Thirty years on and it seems that in some corners cushioning is considered the problem rather than the solution. You can, some claim, have too much of a good thing. The main argument is that a cushioned shoe encourages runners to adopt a running style which is unnatural, ultimately bad and likely to lead to injuries. In particular, it encourages runners to land heavily on the heel.
The correct way to run, so some claim, is to land somewhere on the mid-foot and definitely not on the heel. In so doing, the anatomy of the foot and the lower leg itself provides a natural cushioning on each stride. If you run a short distance barefoot, you will quickly find that you adopt such a foot plant, no matter how you ordinarily run in shoes. Landing heavily on the heel jars your whole body with every step you take.
Those who support the idea of barefoot running usually refer to the Tarahumara people of Mexico, a tribe who runs enormously long distances barefoot or in flimsy sandals and supposedly rarely suffer from injuries. In a similar manner, our distant ancestors ran barefoot or in similar flimsy footwear. The problem is that they did so in part through necessity. Nike, Saucony et al did not exist and they didn’t have access to modern cushioned running shoes. Neither did the Tarahumara until, presumably, recently. The assumption that what is natural is also best, does not necessarily follow. Perhaps the cushioning provided by modern running shoes really is superior to that provided by evolution.
So, is barefoot running better?
I am not saying it isn’t better to run barefoot; I am saying that it is not necessarily so. It is certainly a plausible argument to make; but it is also interesting to note that a lot of experienced runners are very reluctant to give up their running shoes and risk running barefoot. Like a number of products which claim to improve your health or fitness in various ways, the studies which need to be done, for the most part haven’t been done.
Regarding the Tarahumara, what we would like to know is what would happen if they donned modern running shoes before heading out the door. Perhaps they would run further and faster; perhaps they would get even fewer injuries. Or perhaps they would, indeed, get injured more often. But such injuries could be due not to the shoe itself but to the fact that they have now run further and faster. These factors are very difficult to tease apart and, for the most part have not been done. It is similar to the endorsements for barefoot running. “I used to get injuries all the time and now I run barefoot and haven’t had any”. Maybe so; but maybe the endorser has changed something else along with discarding the shoe which accounts for his injury-free life. It is very hard to know.
Perhaps a more compelling observation is that nearly all world-class runners land somewhere on the middle of the foot whereas many recreational runners have a heavy heel strike. This suggests that a mid-foot landing may be a more efficient way to run in addition to its possible injury-reducing benefits. And by running barefoot some of the time, you will be forced to land this way and will therefore learn to run with this technique.
There is another practical consideration to barefoot running. It is obvious that, while you may reduce stress on your joints, there is a very real possibility of stepping on a stone or nail or something similarly unpleasant and damaging your foot. The answer to this is probably the new fad of minimalist running shoes, ironically some of which are not so different to the old plimsols my parents were so keen to get me out of. These shoes provide some protection to your feet while promoting a natural barefoot running style.
I am equivocating on the idea of barefoot running. I think the jury is still out. I consider the question a difficult one to answer. So maybe the best thing to do is to give it a try yourself.
If you decide to do so, like every change you make to your running, you should do it gradually so that your body can adapt to the changes. The first time you do it, consider going to a running track which should have a forgiving surface and no debris to step on. Run a short distance barefoot and see how it feels – do you like it or not? If you do, increase your barefoot mileage very gradually, being especially vigilant for any pain or discomfort which is a warning to back off. However much you buy into the idea, however much you like it, you must build up slowly.
Ultimately, the answer is whether or not barefoot running works for you.