Barefoot Running Part 1

Barefoot Running Part 1: What’s the buzz about?

There has been a lot of interest in barefoot running over the past couple of years.  Although popularized in 2009 after the release of the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, the concept has been around for hundreds of years.  Like any hot topic, there are two sides to every story.  Here is a look into the theory behind barefoot running.
The proposed benefits of barefoot running can be broken into two main concepts:  1. Running mechanics, and 2. Proprioception (position sense and feedback of joints and muscles). Check out the video below for a look at the mechanics of a barefoot and shod (shoe wearing) runner.

Running in shoes

1. Running mechanics
Traditional running sneakers typically have a thick, padded heel, intended to provide shock absorption and cushioning.  This tends to make us over-stride with each step, landing on the heel with the knee extended out in front of the body.  Furthermore, your foot cannot move naturally, leading to increased stress on various structures of the lower extremity.   Although it is not seen in all cases, barefoot runners tend to contact the ground with their mid-foot instead of their heel.  This tendency is seen in avoidance of striking an un-cushioned heel on a hard surface.

  • Running economy:
Barefoot running has been shown to improve running economy and reduce oxygen consumption by up to 5%.  This may be due to the added mass of the shoe when running with footwear, and also the constant acceleration/deceleration seen in the gait cycle of this running style.  
  • Injury Rate:
Ground impact to the heel while running can be upwards of 2.5 times your body weight.  Barefoot runners often increase their cadence (steps per second) while running.  Running cadence with a mid-foot strike pattern is typically between 3-5 steps per second (depending on speed), compared to 1-2 steps per second in the shod runner.  The more steps per second, the less force you must generate per step.  Barefoot runners also spend less time with their foot on the ground, which results in less time for potential injuries to occur.  
  • Plantar fasciitis:
Decreased incidence of plantar fasciitis has been shown in the barefoot running population.  The heel strike demonstrated by a shod runner may place increased stress at the fascial insertion of the tissue, where barefoot running tends to dissipate impact forces to the surrounding musculature.
2. Proprioception
The increased padding in a traditional running shoe can decrease the feedback you get from the ground while running.  Pushing off the ground through this padding, you may experience decreased force production with each step you take, almost like running on a trampoline.  

  • Ankle sprains:
Decreased incidence of ankle sprains has been found in barefoot runners, possibly from the improved position sense and quicker feedback given from the ground.
  • Shock setting:
Improved "shock setting" has been seen, which is the ability to sense discomfort while running and moderate your mechanics as necessary.  

Hopefully this summary offers some insightful information into the theory behind barefoot running.  Keep an eye out for Part 2 where we discuss some of the potential problems with barefoot running, and some practical advice when considering this option.    

Contributed by Dr. Shaun Vollmer, PT, DPT


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