Whats the story with this barefoot running craze?

Have you noticed more people running around in those funny looking glove like shoes?  Have you noticed a few more lighter running shoes on the shelves that aren’t like your traditional heavier trainers?  Well its the result of the minimalist running shoe movement.

Barefoot running has been a novelty over the years with a number of high profile athletes like Zola Budd and Abebe Bikila winning international distance races, but since the release of Christopher McDougal’s book, Born to Run, in 2009 there has been a sharp increase of people taking to this form of running.  The theory is that in taking away that protective cushioning that traditional running shoes provide to the sole of the foot, the body adjusts its landing strategy to a more “natural” technique because it is better able to sense the impact forces the body is experiencing with each foot strike.  In general, barefoot or minimalist footwear, tends to see people landing more “naturally” towards their midfoot or forefoot, compared to the often heavy heel strike of runners accustomed to more cushioned shoes.  The change doesn’t necessarily reduce the running stress on the body overall, but rather moves it from the bones and cartilage inside the joints more to the soft tissues in the muscles and tendons, particularly those of the foot, calf and Achilles tendon.

Does it make you run faster?  Evidence seems to suggest that the heavier the shoe, the higher the cost in energy it is to run.  People at the front end of marathons and international distance events also are more likely to run with a midfoot/forefoot strike.  And landing with a softer footstrike under your centre of gravity has less of a breaking effect to your forward motion as you land, so should be more energy efficient.  However there is still debate in medical literature about the amount of benefit for performance.

The question is, “Should I ditch my old favourites to joint the craze?”  If you have been injury free in the same style of trainers for a long time, have no recurrent injury history and are happy with your current performances then stick to what you know.  However, if you have had problems with your joints, eg cartilage injury, osteoarthritis or lower back trouble, stress fractures (except in the foot), or are looking for other ways to improve your performance, then maybe you should consider a shoe change.

But be wary, any transition to a very light training shoe should be made very slowly over months to allow the body’s tissues to adapt to the new stresses.  Moving from a heavy trainer straight to a “barefoot” shoe can be too much of a drop, and it is better to progress through lightweight shoes like typical racing flats first.  This is often enough of a change for most people to be effective.  People with a history of injury of foot injuries, or Achilles tendon and calf issues need to be particularly wary of changing to lighter, flatter shoes.

If you are considering moving towards doing your regular training in lightweight, minimalist shoes then it is important to know your body has strength in the right areas to cope with the adjustment.  Having an assessment with your Physiohealth physio to get the right exercises and advice on making the change is the safest way to ensure you are ready to join the craze.