Have you seen the Vibram? It’s a “toe-shoe” made specifically to impersonate barefoot running. Imagine toe-socks from the ’70’s but in a shoe form – the shoe-y part curls around each toe like a glove would a set of fingers and thus offers form-fitting yet flexible protection. There’s a hot debate between whether or not barefoot running is the future for runner’s everywhere. Let’s delve into this…
Harvard recently produced a wildly popular study on the art of barefoot running. They begin by noting that most people who run in shoes are “heel-strikers” (as in, when their foot hits the ground, it does so by starting on the heel and rolling through to the toes). Harvard’s study says, “…some runners get repetitive stress injuries each year…one hypothesis is that heel striking contributes to some of these injuries.” The concern is that heel-striking increases instances of stress-related injuries.
However, people who run barefoot or in a Vibram-like shoe tend to strike the ground with their mid-foot or forefoot, thus differently distributing the impact. In other words, before the modern-day shoe (and even the very modern-day running shoe), most often people who ran put more impact on their forefoot and mid-foot.
To get really technical about it, Harvard writes:
In heel striking, the collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact transient,a nearly instantaneous, large force. This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system. In forefoot striking, the collision of the forefoot with the ground generates a very minimal impact force with no impact transient.
Therefore, quite simply, a runner can avoid experiencing the large impact force by forefoot striking properly.
To say it in layman runner’s terms, it is being suggested that by running barefoot, we will be strengthening our feet, properly moving as humans did for hundreds of years before shoes, and allows your feet to function as naturally as possible.
Hm. But is it that simple?
The Other Side
Of course, there are people who do not worship the ground barefoot running enthusiasts are plodding along on. Michael Orendurff of the Movement Science Lab in Texas recently presented an argument that suggested barefoot running was not going to make the joints and limbs less susceptible to injury.
Here’s his main argument: “Barefoot endurance running is not likely to increase the strength of these [plantar] muscles as effective as performing three sets of 20 plantarflexion motions barefoot…Performing an endurance activity to gain strength is something like that quote by Mao about fighting for peace…” Orendurff goes on to point out that creating habitually active people would do more for the health of humans than getting people to run barefoot – those who often work out with team sports increase musculoskeletal strength and balance, endurance, well-being, and reduce their hyper-tension.
Basically, we created shoes because walking/running/skipping/jumping barefoot was kind of dangerous, what with the number of cases of laceration wounds, stress fractures, punctures and tendonitis. Shoes relieved pain from these sorts of injuries. Did they bring on a whole new slew of problems? Perhaps…but doesn’t everything? (Cell phones – ever so convenient, but are they really good for us?)
Even Harvard’s biomechanic study offers this note on more than one occasion: We emphasize, however, that this hypothesis on injury has yet to be tested and that there have been no direct studies on the efficacy of forefoot strike running or barefoot running on injury.
There is an entire website devoted to promoting barefoot running through Harvard, yet there is no actual study or proof that barefoot running is the way to go for optimal plantar health? That seems a little counter-productive.
I firmly believe in doing what is best for you and your body when it comes to pain and athletics. Dr. Dad always tells me, “If it hurts, don’t do it.” In other words, if it hurts to swim the crawl stroke, refrain from that stroke. If it does not, awesome! Go for it. And the same holds true for running. If it hurts to run barefoot, don’t switch over. But if you find it comfortable and build up to it in a progressive fashion then hey, why not? Give it a go!
As far as Vibram is concerned, it seems their goal is more a marketing tool that aims to play with our emotions rather than sell us a product that we need. This is their compelling copy: When you go barefoot, your movements become the movements of a child—playful and sensitive, yet purposeful and confident. You experience the unbound joy of stepping, hopping, and running across any surface on earth, simply to get from here to there. It’s hard to not want to be part of something that aims to bring you a playful sense of joy.
The final verdict? There is none. Do what’s right for you.