Almost as soon as we learn to walk, we learn to run; and although running seems like one of the most natural things a person can do, thousands of runners are injured each year. Most runners seek to avoid injury, in part, by donning hightech shoes that claim to account for the runner’s weight, foot structure, pace and gait. But a new trend has runners kicking off their shoes altogether.
In his 2009 book, Born to Run, Christopher McDougall’s thesis centers on running technique.
“Runners with shoes are more likely to show a pattern of heel strike, or their first contact point with the ground is their heel,” explains Dr. Mark Reinking, chairman of physical therapy and athletic training education at Saint Louis University. “This heel strike causes a sharp force spike of two to three times your body weight. On the other hand, barefoot runners tend to show a midfoot or forefoot strike pattern, which eliminates that sharp force spike at foot contact.”
Scientific evidence is sketchy, at best, but experts hypothesize that the midfoot strike helps reduce pressure on the knees, hips and low back, resulting in fewer injuries.
Dr. Joseph Hilgeman, a Mercy clinic physician specializing in internal medicine, notes that research is underway at Harvard University which may shed light on the biomechanics and potential benefits of barefoot running. “The conclusions thus far are that (barefoot running) could be a really good thing, but we don’t know for sure because we have yet to see if the subjects are getting fewer knee, back and hip injuries or not.”
Hilgeman adds that injuries due to trauma sustained from stepping on sharp objects are a considerable danger for barefoot runners. To help avoid this, an increasing array of ‘barefoot-running shoes’ without arch support are entering the market.
The fact that there are still relatively few barefoot runners helps account for the difficulty in drawing clear conclusions about its pros and cons. “We need to be careful that we don’t skew our opinions based on what might be just a difference in study and population size,” says Dr. Jeremy McCormick, an orthopedic surgeon with Washington University Physicians.
“Some patients love it and really feel like they’re able to spring better on the foot,” McCormick adds. “The body’s perception of where the foot and ankle are in space and the feedback that it gets when it strikes the ground can strengthen some of the smaller and more finely tuned muscles of the foot that do not need to be used when you’re running in shoes.”
And while McCormick emphasizes that he is neither a proponent nor opponent of barefoot running, he echoes Hilgeman’s warning about potential skin trauma. “For weekend warrior-type runners, it’s just a safety issue. Shoes offer a measure of protection whether or not they alter your gait pattern or stride.”
Reinking offers the following guidelines for those who want to try barefoot running: Find a location that has a smooth surface with little debris; start by barefoot running for short periods of time; and pay attention to your foot strike so that it’s midfoot as opposed to the heel or toes. Above all, listen to your body. Whether you’re running with or without shoes, if something hurts and the pain increases or persists for more than a week or two, see your doctor.