I am often asked what I think about barefoot running, a term that refers to either running barefoot or in “barefoot five-finger running shoes”, that mimic the experience of running with naked feet. The controversy with barefoot running is the issue of whether or not it increases or decreases the risk of injury.
Enthusiastic athletes are evangelical in their praise of barefoot running, claiming that the practice has cured them of running-related injuries. Many exercise scientists, citing numerous research studies, beg to differ; others support the new and popular practice. I am grateful for a recent article of unbiased, evidence-based perspectives that informed me enough to be able to respond intelligently to queries posed to me.
Here’s the gist of what I learned: Shoes alter how we move. In shoes, foot stride is longer; more force is put on the heel than the rest of the foot. The force of that repeated pounding travels upward through the bones, making the runner susceptible to stress fractures and other skeletal injuries.
Barefoot running – done correctly (“correctly” is the operative word here) – shifts the impact of landing towards the forefoot, away from the heel. Impact is lighter. The force moves through the muscles and soft tissue, rather than the bones. That lays the individual open to an increased likelihood of muscle strain and/or tendinitis.
The above information is useful if you give reflexology to runners. Helping athletes understand the source of foot injuries and pain may be as simple as looking at what they wear (or don’t wear) on their feet, as much as how they run and on what surface.
The evidence for or against barefoot running does not seem to be definitive enough to make bold, blanket recommendations to runners – at least not for me. The article provides a lot of good information and links to even more, so, if you work with runners, you may wish to read it yourself. Or you might steer your curious clients towards the article and let them reach their own conclusion.
While I am not a runner myself I am a long distance backpacker/hiker. Last year I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from GA to ME. I trained for about 18 months prior to the trek carrying my pack on my back and hiking as much as I could. This allowed my feet to adjust and helped me break in the boots I wore.
While on the trail I met a number of hikers who were wearing Vibram “FiveFingers” and quite a few who wore simple flip-flops. I was amazed that anyone would subject their feet to that kind of hardship. I spoke with many of these folks and they seemed to have no worse injuries/problems with their feet than people like myself, who wore hiking boots.
And while I did not meet these two ladies, a few years ago a pair of sisters hiked the Appalachian Trail barefoot. Their case is documented in a book titled “The Barefoot Sisters Southbound” So I suppose, just like the article suggests, that everyone has a different experience with going barefoot or wearing lightweight shoes for running. I guess the only way to know what works for yourself is too give it a try.