With the Olympics heating up and track and field events set to start next week, it’s an appropriate time to consider the most controversial debate in the running community: Should we lace up a pair of running shoes when we go for a jog, or simply venture out barefoot?
Over the past few years, barefoot running has gone from an oddball pastime to a legitimate athletic movement, and the small number of actual barefoot runners is joined by a much larger number who’ve adopted minimalist running shoes.
Proponents of barefoot running argue that our bodies evolved for shoeless locomotion. Covering up one of our most sensitive, flexible parts distorts our natural stride and prevents foot muscle development. Instead of striding gracefully and landing on the mid or forefoot, running shoes lead us to carelessly land on a heavily cushioned heel. Decades of athletic footwear development have led to bigger, more protective shoes—which have only weakened our feet and made us unable to run the way we are naturally meant to.
The opposing camp—which, after all, still includes the vast majority of runners—points to a number of advantages in wearing shoes. Modern advances in footwear can prevent flawed running tendencies such as overpronation (when a flat-footed runner’s ankle rolls inward with each stride) that lead to injuries like shin splints. If you’ve run with shoes your whole life, going barefoot requires dramatically altering your stride, which often results in other injuries. And, on the most fundamental level, shoes protect us from broken glass, nails, and other dangerous debris often found on city streets and sidewalks.
Now, science weighs in—and the results are decidedly mixed. An analysis of studies University of Central Florida professor Carey Rothschild, published last week in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, examines the body of research that has been conducted on barefoot running.
“The research is really not conclusive on whether one approach is better than the other,” she said in a press release. “There is no perfect recipe.”
The study’s findings included some that barefoot runners will find gratifying. They are indeed more likely to land on their mid-foot or the ball of their foot, avoiding the harmful practice of “heel-striking.” Previous research has shown that landing on the heel generates sudden, powerful impacts that are equivalent in force to several times a runner’s body weight. These impacts–which occur about a thousand times during each mile run—lead to injuries in the knees, hips, and other areas. Running shoes promote heel-striking because of the thick cushioning below the heel, and roughly 75% of shod American runners run this way.
There are dangers to barefoot running as well, though, and they mainly stem from runners trying to switch to an entirely new stride too quickly after ditching their heavily-cushioned shoes. ”The bottom line is that when a runner goes from shoes to no shoes, their body may not automatically change its gait,” Rothschild said. Stress fractures on the front part of the foot and increased soreness in the calves can result from suddenly attempting to shift weight away from the heels after running one way for years. Still, of the barefoot runners Rothschild surveyed, 42% reported no negative effects from the switch.
“There are ways to help make that transition smoother and lower the risk of injuries,” she said. Before ditching shoes, she recommends a thorough physical exam and biomechanical assessment from a physical therapist or running specialist. Then, the transition to bare feet should be gradual, and ideally conducted with the help of a coach. Runners can start by alternating short barefoot runs with longer shod jogs, or using minimalist shoes, lighter footwear with less cushioning that offer a way to ease into barefoot running.
For a sport that’s all about speed, this might be counterintuitive—but for those thinking of running barefoot, the most important thing is taking it slow.