If you asked a runner five years ago what kind of footwear was best for running, they most likely would have recommended thick-soled, cushioned running shoes. The idea behind these shoes is that they are specifically designed to correct any mistakes in your step (so-called motion control) and to minimise the impact that running has on your joints, bones and muscles.
In itself, this makes sense: people have a higher probability of developing injuries when they start running a significant distance every week, so by developing a shoe that minimises this probablility running will be less risky and thus more fun. In the process, the companies that develop these shoes will also make some money. Win-win right?
In recent years however, the popularity of barefoot running has been steadily growing. As the name implies, barefoot running sheds the shoes in favour of running barefoot or, in some cases, with very minimalist footwear.
As I said before, conventional running shoes are designed to optimise your step and minimalise the impact, and thus the risk of injury, by cushioning and stabilising. They do not, however, improve the faults in your running form and technique that caused this greater injury risk in the first place. Neither do they force your foot to stabilise itself by strenghtening the relevant muscles.
This is where barefoot running comes in. Proponents of the movement say that running barefoot, when done properly, minimises your injury risk (thanks to better foot and body mechanics) and strengthens the muscles in your feet.
Barefoot runners argue that conventional running shoes contributed to modern running injuries because they allow people to run without the proper technique. After all, people have been running for thousands of years, yet only the last few decades have they been wearing these high-tech running shoes.
Traditional hunters often chased animals for long distances while barefoot, and even now there are tribes that run with no or minimalist footwear. An example of this is the Taramuhara tribe of Northern Mexico, who pride themselves on running as much as 120 miles (190km) at a time, all without shoes.
Another argument is that you enjoy your run more when you actually feel the surface you are running on (also known as increased sensory perception).
Rather than just taking off your shoes and running as usual, the most important change you make is in your technique. Instead of landing on the back part of your foot (known as heel striking) you land more on your toes (front foot striking), which decreases the impact on for example knees and shins.
But Isn’t It Dangerous?
It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.
The most obvious problem is that you do not have the cushioning of your usual running shoe to protect you from the impact of your foot on the surface. The idea is, however, that if you use the proper running technique, you don’t need all of this extra cushioning.
Another issue is that you sometimes need something to protect your feet from the environment – dirt, glass, sharp rocks, dog poo. This is where minimalist shoes (also called barefoot shoes) come in. These are ultra lightweight, ultra thin shoes that protect your feet from the environment but still allow your feet to be in touch with the ground.
So How Do I Get Started?
Because the shift in technique is the most important, this should be your first priority when making the switch to barefoot running. There are lots of resources to be found online on how to run barefoot, but if you’re unsure it’s always best to talk to a running coach. If you have had any previous injuries make sure to consult a doctor before making the switch full-time.
Because you will be using muscles that haven’t been used much before, you have to start off very slowly and gradually build up the distance you run. It will take you several months to get back to the distance and speed you were running before.
Running the NYC Marathon Barefoot
Many of the proponents of barefoot running do distance running events themselves, so as with any marathon you will find a group of participants that choose to go barefoot or minimalist. If you choose to run a marathon barefoot, make sure your technique is perfect and you are well trained in barefoot running because 42 kilometers of asphalt takes a heavy toll on your body!