Barefoot Running Pros and Cons

by Sylvester Janssens
by Sylvester Janssens

Statistics have shown that 30% of runners are subject to injury every year.
In his 2009 best selling masterpiece “Born to Run”, Christopher McDougall passionately advocated barefoot running and he is not alone: recent studies have proven that running barefoot enhances stride and prevents injury, and above all it is far more enjoyable than running with shoes.

Still, some renowned doctors beg to differ and argue that it could stimulate more injury and have long-term damaging effects on the feet. Others believe that although running shoes do in protect the feet, they could substantially impact the ankles, hip, and the most problematic area of all: the knees!

So, where to go from there?! This article sheds some light on this controversial issue. Enjoy!

Barefoot Running Advocates Testimonials

“I thought ‘This rocks’ and stopped looking for my flat shoe…” as Michael Legault, a 50+ contractor, explains. Legault’s story with barefoot running is rather unusual. After getting a black toenail during a marathon, he took off his flatfoot running shoes 2 miles before the finish line and the rest is history!

As for Efrem Rensi, barefoot running was his cure from chronic Achilles tendon problems after he tried every imaginable alternative: “I bought a motion-control shoe and walked around, but things really didn’t get any better,” Rensi attests.
Ken Bob, a passionate barefoot runner, ‘s website was the answer to Rensi’s prayers. As shocked and astounded by this “weird hippie” look, Rensi decided to give it a shout and the results were staggering! His Achilles tendon problem became much less intense and he managed to complete Oakland Running Festival, which a 26.2-mile marathon, barefoot in just 3 hours and 33 minutes!

He considers wearing cushioned running shoes a “fad” practice!

For Ted McDonald says, who was featured in McDougall’s “Born to Run,” barefoot running was the only solution he could find for a very common problem: unbearable lower back pain. You name it, he tried it as far as traditional solutions goes. He kept exchanging one running shoe after the other but all was in vain until he decided to set his feet free.

Guess what, not only did his lower back pain disappear but he also managed to become the only barefoot runner in the Copper Canyon Mexican ultra-marathon. Still, McDonald is not a barefoot running fanatic as he occasionally uses the popular feet-molding shoes with a pocket for each toe, known as Vibram FiveFingers shoes. Now he considers wearing cushioned running shoes a “fad” practice!

Michael Sandler, turned his passion for barefoot running into a mission by teaching people how to master it slowly but surely through his book “Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth”.
Sandler was first introduced to barefoot running after a tragic bone breaking accident. When nothing else worked, he went for barefoot running and never looked back.
In his book he addresses all the fears other runners would feel about this experience. He asserts that in the long run, your feet will harden enough that even rocks or glasses won’t tear them up. “My skin has gotten stronger over the years, but it doesn’t look like caveman feet,” Sandler says.
Sandler recommends that new barefoot runners should take the gradual approach. First, walk barefoot. Then start running on grass and/or cement to strengthen your feet skin. That’s it! Now you are ready to run barefoot anywhere you wish.”It feels incredible,” he says. “When you are connected to the ground, you see it in a different way. You are no longer watching the scenery pass by, you are part of it.”

What Do Barefoot Running Opponents Have to Say

Dr. Lesley Wolff who is a foot and ankle surgeon, a marathon runners coach, educated in biomechanics and the director of the San Francisco Bay Area Podiatry Group is completely against barefoot running. On top of that, he has been running in shoes for 35 years.

To him, barefoot runners are taking a huge risk due to “The repetitive pounding on the ground without protection, I think, is ridiculous,” he says. Not only runners may get injured by accidentally stepping on objects like nails and glass (mind you this point was covered by Sandler above) but the man-made hard terrains that runner mostly use makes the running shoes cushions an absolute must.
Perhaps the most valid point that he mentioned is that the fat pads on the feet bottoms get thinner overtime which make barefoot running a long-term risk that is “doomed” with problems.

Scientific Evidence That Backup Barefoot Running

Some Harvard University doctors believe under certain conditions that running with Vibram FiveFingers shoes or barefoot are safer than running with cushioned shoes. Without the cushion, the foot exerts less pressure on the heel which could otherwise lead to stress injury.

On the other hand, forefoot and mid-foot striking is enhanced by running barefoot. The strikes of these particular areas, as studies reveal, have less impact force on the body compared to heel strikes.
In another study, effects of barefoot running on the knees, hips and ankle joints was compared against running in modern running shoes.
The study was conducted on 68 young healthy runners 37 of which are women. They were provided with running shoes and each of them had a chance to run using the running shoes and barefoot in order to compare the difference using a motion analysis system.

The researchers observed increased joint torques at the ankle, knee, and hip with running shoes compared with running barefoot. 54% average increase in the internal rotation torque of the hip, and a 36% increase in the flexion torque of the knee were observed when using running shoes compared to barefoot running.
The study concluded that although contemporary running shoes serve the purpose of protecting the feet, they do have straining effects on these three critical areas.
As you see, the pros of barefoot running far outweigh its cons and the saying goes: ”You can’t learn how to swim until you put your feet in the water”. So, jump in give it a try and reap all the rewards barefoot running has to offer.

Have fun!

Are you a barefoot runner? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!