About The Author: Bob Butterworth of Zenwerks is a dedicated barefoot running enthusiast.
Rae Heim runs barefoot. The eighteen-year-old running enthusiast is determined to complete a journey across the entire United States from Boston to Huntington Beach, California. She plans to get there by November and to do it all without shoes. June 20 found her halfway to her goal in North Liberty, Missouri. She’s earning $5,000 along the way, not to pay for college but to donate to Soles4Souls, which gives shoes to people who don’t have any.
Barefoot runners claim that the practice helps to reduce the incidence and severity of overuse injuries. According to the National Institutes of Health, this is a possibility, but more research needs to be done into the effects of this style of running.
The Science Behind Barefoot Running
A recent paper by four scientists from Harvard University explores the reasons why Kenyan runners are able to cover long distances comfortably without wearing shoes. Actually, humans have been doing this for thousands of years without apparent difficulty. Modern running shoes were not invented until the 1970s. Prior to this, people always ran either barefoot or in minimal footwear.
Running shoes were intended to prevent injuries to a runner’s feet by cushioning the impact that athletes experience. Still, many people who run on a regular basis suffer from injuries to the feet and legs.
Lieberman, Venkadesan, Daoud and Werbel of Harvard University began studying the way barefoot runners land by filming them and watching in slow motion. They found that people who wear modern running shoes tend to come down on their heels (heel strikes), while barefoot runners usually land either on the forefoot or the middle of the foot.
Heel strikes cause greater stress to the foot than forefoot strikes, which also tend to be springier. When a runner lands on the heel, the impact is transmitted up to the rest of the body through the skeletal system. When he lands on the ball of the foot or mid-foot, the gentler impact is not generally transmitted, and the small stress is carried goes through muscle and ligaments instead of bone.
Barefoot or minimally shod runners tend to take shorter strides and vary the way they come down, using some forefoot strikes and some mid-foot strikes. The researchers emphasize that many more studies need to be done before they can conclude that running barefoot or in minimal footwear is better than running in modern shoes.
Pros and Cons of Barefoot Running
Walking or running barefoot tends to strengthen the muscles in the feet and ankles. This is what allows barefoot runners to go long distances without discomfort or injury. People who habitually run barefoot believe that they experience fewer injuries or fatigue.
Not all podiatrists, however, agree with the view that barefoot running is better for the human body. Many doctors are concerned that it may leave runners vulnerable to stress fractures of the metatarsal bones and to injuries to the sole of the foot.
Presently, there is no actual proof that barefoot running provides benefits. The doctors and scientists in this debate all agree that more research needs to be done to determine the efficacy of barefoot running.
They also stress that people who have lost touch perception in the feet should always wear protective footgear. Anyone considering barefoot running should consult with their doctor before starting on that course. The surface needs to be free of hazards such as glass or nails, and should not be extremely hot or cold.
Runners who want to try going barefoot should start slowly and build distance very gradually. They should run on a hard surface that is free of obstacles while building the muscles in the feet and ankles. Changing the style of running takes many months of training. If runners experience pain, they should stop and consult a doctor.
It will take many years and many research studies to determine whether barefoot running is more healthful and safe. In the meantime, Rea is making her way across the country, raising money for people who need shoes.