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Baring Your Sole, Part One

Understanding Barefoot Running, the Latest Exercise Fad


Fads drive me insane, but I’ve been in the fitness industry long enough to see that they just keep making their way into mainstream thought. What’s more frustrating is that most are just repackaged trends from 10 to 30 years ago. The latest is barefoot running. Have you read about it? Are you already doing it?

The trend was kicked off by a surge in recent exercise literature. Chris McDougall’s 2009 book Born to Run as well as a review of literature and primary research from Harvard evolutionary biology professor Daniel Lieberman (see barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu) has flipped the running and shoe industry on its head … or foot, as it were. It’s not limited to the running culture, though, as trainers are also implementing such barefoot practices. (See this Web site.)

Chris Ecklund

What’s all the uproar about? It comes down to two basic issues:

1) In ancient times, nobody ran in shoes. Or, if they did, they were extremely simple in construction. Throughout that time, humans were apparently able to do it with little to no injury.

2) Several groups continue to run shoeless (Tarahumara Indian tribe, Kenyans) and are showing minimal injuries associated with running as well high levels of performance and health.

A look back at recent history reveals that the modern running shoe was developed around the 1970s, right when the big “aerobics” kick, spurred by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, hit the American scene. Almost immediately, there was an increase in running-related injuries. Soles of shoes got thicker and thicker and, eventually, we had plantar-flexed shoes so we could “heel strike with less impact” and roll into the stride. A few years later we added the heel cups and supinated arch support to add “motion control” because too many people had flat arches. Forty years later, with exponential growth in technology and information, what do we see when we take another quick look at the shoe industry? Shoe companies designing shoes that marketed as being so minimal that it’s almost like running in bare feet (i.e. Vibram FiveFinger, Nike Free, etc.). So in 40 years, we managed to come completely full circle and end up right back where we started.

I watch people run, cut, jump, lift, lower, push, pull, and stabilize everyday. The simple truth is this: We don’t move that well. I see it in adults and, more frightening, I see it in kids. But switching from shoes to shoeless is not going to fix this problem. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in it for the right people in the right doses.

As the research reveals:

1) We have done it for much of history so why change now?

2) There’s good evidence that landing ground reaction forces differ between shod and barefoot athletes. Lieberman’s study shows increased ground impact in heel strike runners (heel contacts ground prior to ball of foot) and those in running shoes (who as a majority tend to heel strike).

3) Heel striking during running increases both the braking (deceleration) force as well as breaking (literally adding to possible trauma of soft tissue and stress fractures of bones). Neither of these are beneficial.

4) Running in bare feet will most likely rapidly alter running mechanics toward efficiency. Why? Ever try running in bare feet and landing on your heel? It hurts! Generally the transition to a flat foot or ball of foot ground strike is a rapid adaptation that you’ll learn quickly or suffer the consequences.

5) Other research (see here) has shown landing and cutting ground reaction forces are better in barefooted athletes. Why? It hurts more to land hard in bare feet so the body naturally decelerates more efficiently.

6) Cutting or changing directions in bare feet requires more muscular demand from the entire foot-ankle complex because there is no shoe to support or provide traction for it. Look back at basketball players in the ‘70s and ‘80s and notice how little support their shoes had. Anybody notice how ankle and ACL injuries have been on the rise ever since our shoes and playing surfaces got “better?” Tape an ankle that isn’t injured to add support and what happens? The ankle gets weaker because the tape is doing the work.

Where does that leave us? When I recently posed this question to chiropractor Neal Barry, an avid runner, he said the literature is simply inconclusive at this point. There is support on both sides of the fence.

As for me, you’ll rarely hear me say “always yes” or “always no” to fitness or athletic performance questions. It depends on you. What are your goals? What is your exercise/fitness, health, and training history? Do you have any foot limitations or biomechanical/structural issues? All of these and more must be considered by qualified experts.

Let’s bring back some logic to our thinking. First, popular literature should not be treated as God or gold — just because it’s in writing does not mean it’s truth. Second, progression — going from zero to 60 in anything is unwise, so be gradual as you go down the barefoot road. And, finally, if it hurts, stop!

Stay tuned for Part 2 when we’ll address more specific biomechanics of running, cutting, and landing as well as why 75 percent of people in Santa Barbara who are “running to get in shape” should stop running.

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Chris Ecklund, MA, CSCS, USAW is a strength & performance coach, adjunct faculty at Westmont College and University of California Santa Barbara and speaks and writes nationally as a fitness and performance expert.

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