Bare Facts About Barefoot Running

Running barefoot, or in ‘barefoot shoes’ (thin-soled shoes that simulate the feeling of being barefooted) has become increasingly popular over the last few years. It […]

Running barefoot, or in ‘barefoot shoes’ (thin-soled shoes that simulate the feeling of being barefooted) has become increasingly popular over the last few years. It has also incited protest from proponents of traditional running shoes. To complicate things further, the only available information seems to be totally biased one way or the other. So, how can science help us to untangle this argument?

I am a keen runner, and whilst I have no intention of donning a pair of barefoot trainers, I am not fundamentally opposed to the concept. I do, however, oppose the heated, yet unsubstantiated arguments that arise from both sides as they aggressively defend their choices. In fact, I was recently confronted by a complete stranger for buying ‘archaic’ running shoes!

So, what do the barefoot supporters claim? The theory is that your gait is altered unnaturally by running shoes, putting excessive pressure on areas of your lower body that are not designed to cope with it.

Is this scientifically sound? There is some supporting biomechanical evidence, and many reported cases of individuals finding vast improvements in their running in terms of ability and associated pain. However, the most commonly injured tissue during running is tendon, which can occur in both the knee and the heel. The mechanical properties of the tendon are not well understood and this makes it very difficult to achieve conclusive research. What we do know is that tendon develops its composition, cell structure and tissue structure based on its loading history. Thus, if you regularly stress it in a particular direction or under a particular weight then it will adapt to optimize its performance under these conditions. This has been shown in animals, where the entire composition and structure of the tendon (which is not uniform) is seen to ‘flip’ when the limb is loaded in the opposite way over an extended period of time.

How does this relate to running? If you have become accustomed to your feet being supported in a certain way, then suddenly changing this (e.g. by dramatically altering you technique or footwear) can be catastrophic for your tendon, causing anything from tendonitis to complete rupture, as the tendons are simply not adapted to this style.

So should we all be burning barefoot shoes and kitting ourselves out with the latest, most supportive trainers? Probably not. After all, plenty of runners experience tendon problems when wearing fully supportive trainers. Say, for example, that you spend all of your time in flat, unsupportive shoes and have been merrily and comfortably bounding around. You may well have a natural gait that lends itself to the barefoot running shoes, and your tendons will have adapted to cope with this. In this case, perhaps it is harmful to force your feet into ultra-constrictive trainers that change this. However, tendons are designed to adapt to circumstances and with careful training, injuries can be avoided.

It therefore seems that the best footwear is totally dependent on your own biochemistry and training program. So, if you have found the best shoes for you, that’s great, but remember that they might not be the ideal solution for others. We need to focus on our individual needs rather than trying desperately to convert each other!

About Jessica Smith