Barefoot running has become one of the biggest sports trends in the last decade. Its fans, including some physicians, promote it as a more natural way to run. It’s been the subject of books, studies and plenty of debate. But is it really better? We’ll take a look at why barefoot running is a thing and explore some of the benefits as well as potential problems and why talking to your orthopaedist is a must before starting.
What Is Barefoot Running?
Barefoot running isn’t just about taking off your shoes to go for a jog. The intent is to change the whole biomechanics of running by changing your runner’s “gait.” This means shaking up how you land as you hit the ground with each stride, affecting the feet, ankles, knees and hips. Research shows that barefoot running changes what’s called the foot strike pattern. With traditional running shoes, the heel usually hits the ground first–called a heel strike. And while there isn’t necessarily a problem with the heel-first landing, studies show it channels the brunt of impact into the heel. Barefoot running changes the way your foot lands, with the front or middle of the foot hitting the ground first. This takes impact off the heel and spreads it across the foot and is considered by proponents to be a more natural running pattern.
What Is Minimalist Running?
The boom in barefoot running has created a wave of minimalist running shoes for runners who like the barefoot style but don’t want to take it all off. Most major athletic footwear companies now offer a minimalist shoe designed to offer the benefits of barefoot running with an extra layer of protection. According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, traditional running shoes feature cushioned heels, arch support and a big difference in thickness between the front and back of the foot. Minimalist footwear focuses on more flexibility and less cushioning in the sole, and a minimal height difference between the front and the back of the shoe is designed to encourage a forefoot or midfoot landing.
What Are the Most Common Running Injuries?
As you’d imagine, the feet and legs bear the brunt of running injuries. Some of the most common include:
- Kneecap pain (also called patellofemoral pain)
- IT band (or iliotibial) issues affecting the tendon that runs down the outer thigh from hip to knee
- Plantar fasciitis: heel pain that comes from inflammation of the tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot
- Stress fractures of the shin: tiny fractures in the bones of the lower leg that are caused by repetitive motion
What Are the Benefits of Barefoot Running?
Proponents of barefoot running tout positive changes to knee and ankle movement, along with a spreading out of shock absorption throughout the leg. These changes can reduce the risk of certain injuries. The 2016 AAOS study indicated that running with a forefoot strike can reduce impact on the knees, ankles and hips and that barefoot running lowers the risk of kneecap injuries and possibly stress fractures to the shin.
What Are the Negatives of Barefoot Running?
According to the 2016 study, while barefoot running appears to reduce the risk of certain injuries, it may contribute to others. Some injuries that may be more likely in barefoot runners include stress fractures to the metatarsal bones of the foot, plantar fasciitis and (yes) puncture wounds. Interestingly, worries about puncture wounds–stepping on glass for example–are one of the top concerns doctors hear from runners considering barefoot. But if this is your only concern, minimalist footwear is a good solution.
Is Barefoot Running Right for Me?
One of the main conclusions of the AAOS study is that the orthopaedic community should continue to study the long term effects of barefoot and minimalist running, looking carefully at the pros and cons. Here are a few things that are clear:
- Training is key. If you are considering moving to a minimalist approach, talk with a trainer about how to make the transition in the safest possible way. You can also change your strike pattern with traditional running shoes if that’s more comfortable for you.
- Transition gradually. Most stress injuries happen when runners make an abrupt shift from traditional to barefoot style, according to the AAOS study and other research. A trainer can help you make the shift safely.
Runners and Countryside Orthopaedics
At Countryside Orthopaedics, we believe that whether or not to ditch your traditional running shoes for a barefoot or minimalist approach is a highly individual decision. Especially if you have experienced past running injuries, it’s always best to consult with your orthopaedist before jumping into a new training regime. We’ll look at your medical history and talk about the benefits and drawbacks for your body and running style. We see athletes, including many runners, every week in our practice. Our goal is to help our clients continue to participate in the sports they love and stay injury-free. If minimalist running makes sense in your case, we’ll help you make it work. If you love your traditional running shoes, we can help you keep using them safely and effectively.