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The pros and cons of barefoot running

Hadyn Luke posted this on Tuesday 18th of June 2013 Hadyn Luke 18/06/2013

Tags: Training methods

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The pros and cons of barefoot running

In today’s health and fitness blog we investigate the pros and cons of barefoot running.

Running is one of the most popular ways to keep fit and most exercise routines developed by personal trainers will include an element of running on a treadmill, for example interval training (see our blog on Interval training for motivation). 

The physical benefits of running

As well as the cardiovascular benefits, the impact of running can improve bone density, decreasing the risk of developing osteoarthritis. As a compound exercise it uses several major muscle groups – including the glutes, quads and hamstrings – helping with weight management and to develop muscular strength and endurance in the legs. 

The psychological benefits of running

As fitness instructors will recognise, running contributes towards overall health, fitness and weight loss, all of which can benefit mental health. Taking time out for a run allows an individual to have a break from their routine, de-stress and, in the case of running outdoors, enjoy some fresh air and sunshine. 

The barefoot running movement

The idea of barefoot or natural running has gained momentum in recent years, leading to more research being carried out into its benefits and drawbacks. The term “barefoot running” is often used for running with specialist minimal shoes as well as for running completely barefoot. 

Common running injuries

From elite athletes to recreational runners in the park, running injuries are widespread. An article in the REPS Journal (May 2013) entitled “The (Re-) Evolution of Barefoot Running: Does It Reduce Injury?” by Paul Remy Jones, Christian Barton and Dylan Morrissey states that for runners wearing training shoes: 

“Common injuries include patellofemoral pain syndrome, iliotibial band friction syndrome, medial tibial stress syndrome, Achilles tendinopathy, plantar fasciitis and stress fracture.”

Although there have been major developments in the technology of the modern running shoe, the rate of injury from running appears to have remained around the same. Fitness professionals have therefore questioned whether it’s worth spending a lot of money on the latest training shoes and some people have started to consider barefoot running as a viable alternative. 

The background to barefoot running

An early study into running shod and barefoot – “Footgear – Its History, Uses and Abuses” by Steele F Stewart (Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, 88, 1972) – stated:

“All writers who have reported their observations of barefooted people agree that the untrammeled feet of natural men are free from the disabilities commonly noted among shod people – hallax vagus, bunions, hammer toes, and painful feet.” 

The barefoot running movement was later brought to wider attention by the bestselling book: “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” by Christopher McDougal. 

Today there are also organisations such as the Barefoot Runners Society, which champion barefoot and minimalist running. 

Alternatives to barefoot running          

For those who wish to run as close to barefoot as possible without the risk of damaging the sole of the foot on surface hazards, an alternative is minimal running shoes. These protect the underside of the foot but don’t restrict the natural gait as much as traditional running shoes. However, anyone used to running in trainers should start by walking in minimalist shoes and work up gradually to running in them. 

The pros of barefoot running

One of the reasons that barefoot running is considered beneficial is that it allows the foot to follow a more natural movement.

The majority of people running in trainers will run with a heel to toe action, whereas those running barefoot will land on the mid-foot or fore-foot first. This gives a more efficient running style and strengthens the musculature of the foot and the support of the ankle, leading to a reduced rate of injuries.

While running shoes have been developed over the years in a bid to support the foot and prevent pronation or supination, both of which can cause injury, fans of barefoot running feel that this is simply confining the foot and preventing it from following its natural motion. 

A personal trainer with a client who is considering barefoot running should be aware that it is most suited for experienced runners with a good understanding of the various aspects of running or those who are willing to spend time gradually introducing barefoot running into their gym routine.

The cons of barefoot running

The most obvious drawback that any fitness professional would point out is that running barefoot outdoors brings a risk of injury from rocks, stones, glass, nails or other items that might be found underfoot in an urban or countryside environment. 

Also, studies have not yet proved that barefoot running has a competitive edge over wearing running shoes.

An article in JAAPA (Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, March 2013), entitled “The potential hazards of barefoot running: Proceed with caution” by C Goble, J Wegler and C Forest, lists those for whom barefoot running is not recommended.

These include but are not limited to people who:

  • Are in poor physical condition
  • Have diabetes
  • Have decreased bone density
  • Have chronic foot or ankle conditions or instability

In conclusion

If a personal trainer has a client who wishes to investigate the benefits of barefoot running, they should be advised to make the transition gradually, building up the amount they run barefoot or in minimal running shoes over a period of time.

 

 

 

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