There are many arguments for and against, but there is one in favor which comes up in conversation all the time – “Barefoot running is natural and we are not designed to run in trainers!”
Heard this one before? Yes, and it is pretty logical. But here is the most overlooked counter argument – If trainers are “unnatural” then guess what else is unnatural? CONCRETE!
In the thousands and thousands of years of human history how recently have we been walking/running on concrete? There is a great difference between running on concrete vs grass/sand/forest floor etc. which unlike concrete have the ability to absorb some of the forces from running which saves the joint from unnecessary strain, wear and tear.
Let’s put force into perspective. The forces going through your feet (which transfer into you knees, hips and lower back) when walking are 1-3x body weight, with running it is 3-5x body weight and with jumping and landing it is 5-7x body weight.
Now consider the effect of faulty foot/ankle mechanics. The primary shock absorber or gait (walking) is foot pronation, which describes both a movement and a position. As a chiropractor the vast majority of patients I see in practice have a degree of EXCESS pronation both statically and during gait, on one or both sides which can often be the cause of knee/hip/lower back injuries. (Please do not confuse pronation with “flat feet” they are NOT the same thing although they do often coincide, and sometimes a “flat foot” is genetic and non-pathological, but that’s a different article for another day. These clinical observations are a big sign that our feet are not suited to the modern environment of the concrete jungle that we live in and perhaps the poor style and quality of shoes that are mostly on the market today!
So where does barefoot running fit into all of this?
Well the first question to ask yourself is why do you want to run barefoot in the first place? If you are new to running then this is probably not the easiest starting point. If you are an experienced runner then what are you looking to achieve? There are no prizes for completing the London marathon barefoot instead of trainers! If you are running well and injury free then why change anything? If you have an injury then perhaps you need to get it treated properly by a competent practitioner instead of loading that injury with more force! If you are trying to improve proprioception then why not start with doing simple proprioceptive exercises? There may be a time and a place for barefoot running but you need a better reason other than “it’s natural” unless you want injuries.
Ok. Let’s assume that you are going to start/continue barefoot running because no matter what I say you have already read a book about the Tarahumara people of North West Mexico and are convinced that you have the same genetics and the concrete road is not different to the natural desert land they live in, and that you have perfect foot/ankle function because you have had them checked and treated by a good chiropractor or physio who specializes in extremities…..then what?
Ok, well here are my recommendations to ensure that you barefoot run as safely as possible:
- RUN ON GRASS! This will solve most of the problem
- Get your feet/ankles checked and adjusted by a good chiropractor who is well versed in extremities. This will ensure that you are functioning properly in the first place, you can NOT fix everything with training alone!
- Improve ankle proprioception, if you can’t stand on one leg for 60 seconds with eyes shut and hands on hips then you are NOT ready to barefoot run. Both sides must be able to achieve this.
- Practice “short foot” holds, you need to have good strength and conditioning in the arches of your feet, see a good chiro/physio/osteo or rehab practitioner to learn to do this properly. If you cannot hold for 5 minutes at a time on both sides, then you should not be running above 5 km, EVEN in trainers.
The bottom line – trainers are NOT natural, and a lot of shoes on the market are terribly designed and can even interfere with normal gait patterns. Concrete is ALSO unnatural and is a far from ideal running surface specially for barefoot running. If you are happy how you are running and are currently injury-free then by all means keep going, just be prepared to make changes if things don’t go so well in future.
Anything can be good or bad depending on your goals and your physical/athletic needs, make your choices intelligently and be informed.