Is the barefoot running trend over–or are there real benefits to minimalist running? – Kevin
It’s been an interesting few decades in the running shoe industry. We started with a lower heel-to-toe drop (the difference between the height of the heel versus the toe in a shoe) in the 1970s where you could pretty much feel the ground as you ran over it. As time passed and running became more mainstream, running shoe drops grew beefier and beefier, adding more cushion with every stride. Remember the Nike Shox? I do, they rivaled my high heels on a Saturday night!
When the best-selling book Born to Run was published, it changed the running shoe conversation by highlighting the benefits of running barefoot as well as running with less under foot. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it as it’s as entertaining as it is educational and definitely defines the biomechanics of running in a way that would make anyone want to shed their shoes and head out for a run.
The truth is, we are made to walk and run barefoot, and doing so provides proprioceptive benefits (muscle sense) with the land that we move across. A perfect example of this is when a young child learns to walk and stabilize. Many times they are barefoot and they can feel the ground they are trying to move across. When you add shoes to the mix, they almost have to relearn how to walk because it reduces the body’s connection to the ground and rather than their body stabilizing, the shoes do more of the work along the way.
(Authors note: The same is true for my dog Bear! When I put those cute little winter mittens on all four of his paws, it took him weeks to learn to walk normally in them because he couldn’t feel the ground underfoot.)
Does that mean we should all donate our running shoes and run barefoot? No. It simply means, that if we wanted to invest the time to evolve back to living barefoot – we could. When I raced in Fiji, there was a native that helped us across a raging river and through a cut bamboo field. His feet looked liked shoes–large and wide–and moved without even as much as a scrape on his feet through the field.
My point: our feet are well protected and well supported–almost to a fault. The running shoe industry is righting itself now with a more balanced approach to shoes. They went from pushing shoes that looked like sandals to minimalist shoes that had a little extra protection to now, what I believe is a hybrid, between the beefier models and the minimalist (what Goldilocks would deem “just right”).
Although barefoot running was a craze, it led to a greater understanding of shoe technology and biomechanics. It is also fair to say that if the shoe works for you, don’t mess with it. I’ve heard from so many runners that went from running without issues to changing to barefoot or less shoe overnight to find Achilles and calf issues a month later.
It’s important to note that if you want to run in less shoe, you will need to allow time to adapt to running in less shoe and in some cases on a lower to the ground stride. When women wear high heels, all the muscles, tendons and joints have to adapt and shorten (tighten) to move safely. Over time, our body’s response is often tight, short calf muscles and Achilles. Like a higher drop running shoe, if you go from high to low to quickly, you’re putting 2-3 times your body weight with every stride putting the tight, short muscles under great pressure.
The key is to train your body just as you would for a marathon: a gradually progressive program that includes strengthening your feet, ankles and core, investing time simply wearing “less shoe” and including range of motion and flexibility exercises for your feet and ankles. Yoga is an effective way to do this because all of the exercises are done without shoes. If you’re like me, at first this led to cramping of the toes and feet, but over time, my feet adapted and allowed me to walk barefoot around the house without issue and eventually wear less shoe under foot.
The benefits of running in less shoe are a greater sense of the ground underfoot, better stabilization from within, improved balance and range of motion and form that encourages landing in the mid-foot, which can help reduce impact forces up the body as you land.
Finally, sometimes we can get so caught up in the details that we miss the truth. Many runners can make the transition safely to wearing a shoe that has less support and cushion and with a lower drop. But for many, it could mean the difference between running healthfully and not running at all due to pain. It’s always best to be mindful of what works for you – and then go with it.
Coach Jenny Hadfield