Barefoot Running

A Personal View from Keith Allen-Shirtcliffe

Barefoot is back again!  Way back in the 80’s Zola Bud created a spike in interest (no pun intended) by beating the world’s best runners without wearing shoes.  This time around, the running magazines have reported the trend from a more scientific viewpoint and some are becoming firm advocates.  Even the main training shoe manufacturers, after years of making their trainers more technically and extolling the virtues of extra cushioning and support, now compete to see who can put the least structure into a shoe.

So what is it all about?  Will it stop you getting injured? Will it make you faster?  And should we all be throwing our trainers in the bin?

The correct training shoe or orthotic has undoubtedly helped many people to overcome running injuries.  So why is it that, despite constant developments in shoe technology over the last 30 years, we haven’t seen great reduction in instances of running injuries?  The obvious answer is that there is more to injury prevention than the shoe alone.

Advocates of barefoot running say that, without the cushioning, support and ‘drop’ (difference in height from the rear of a foot bed to the front) of a normal training shoe, a runner will be forced to adopt a forefoot running style and strengthen muscles accordingly.  The benefits, once this is achieved, would be a reduction in injuries and an improvement in efficiency, leading to faster times.

Unfortunately, in physiotherapy we are beginning to see injuries in people who have taken up barefoot running.  In particular, I have dealt with cases of metatarsalgia, Achilles and tibialis posterior tendon inflammation and calf pain due to running with no shoes.  The same injuries can easily be caused by changing to a forefoot strike too much, too quickly.  So I would urge caution with either approach and ask people to build the time spent without shoes very slowly allowing the body’s tissues to adapt and strengthen.  Please also remember that your existing running technique, the strength of your collagen fibres and any pre-existing biomechanical deficiencies will absolutely play a part in your resilience to injury.

We don’t need to run without shoes to achieve a ‘natural running’ style.

For many years Sports Physiotherapists have taught people how to strengthen their feet, ankles and lower legs so that they are able to hold the foot in a good alignment, absorb shock and avoid over-pronating; also advising on posture, foot strike, cadence and other factors (see Gait Analysis).  Exercises and drills are done at home with and without shoes.  Aspects of technique can be practised while running with shoes on.  Doing this work can help avoid numerous injuries caused by excessive abnormal stresses.

So, should we all be going barefoot?

Well, there is no right answer.  We will all make our choice depending on our beliefs, experiences and the types of injuries we have suffered in the past.  My own choice is to continue practising a natural running gait, but to do this inside a shoe with cushioning and a little support.