It may sound primitive, but running barefoot is a progressive fitness option with real performance benefits. Jay Bonaretti explains why you should hit your stride sans shoes

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It may sound primitive, but running barefoot is a progressive fitness option with real performance benefits. Jay Bonaretti explains why you should hit your stride sans shoes

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Can you imagine running without any foot protection? Hitting the pavement without a cushy heel protector and secured toes?

 

Well, one thing is for sure, though it might be tremendously uncommon, Olympic champion and world record holders, Zola Budd, Abebe Bikila and Tegla Loroupe are all perfect examples of how the shoes don’t make the runner.


While running shoeless is uncommon, there is a definite group of people who identify with what’s called the ‘barefoot movement’. This group strongly believes in leaving shoes out of running for a number of health reasons associated with the huge biomechanical difference of going barefoot.

Quick history

While historically humans would have naturally run and gone about daily tasks barefoot, the introduction of the shoe ten thousand years ago took on quickly. However, in the 21st century, barefoot running really came into the public eye when African runner Abebe Bikila, from Ethiopia, became an Olympic champion at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, after running the race barefoot because his Adidas-sponsored shoes didn’t fit comfortably.


Other African, British and American runners share similar stories, where training and competing shoeless was simply their way of running successfully and comfortably.


In recent years, barefoot associations have popped up and members are steadily growing as the interest in running barefoot catches on.

Health implications

There have been very few studies on the overall impact of shoeless running compared with barefoot running; however, there are biomechanical differences that are generally accepted by proponents and critics of running barefoot.


When running with typical running shoes, the design of the shoe forces an unnatural landing on the heel, rather than on the lateral edge of the foot. In the shoe, the layers of padding under the heel unnaturally propel the body into the forward motion. The natural form of running would automatically allow the body to both absorb the fall of each stride and carry forward the energy into the next stride.  

Potential benefits


Proprioception. This is the sensory feedback that we receive from touch and refers to how we know where we are in space. Wearing shoes while running diminishes the nerve senses in the foot because of all the cushioning between the ground and skin, leaving the brain partially blind, in a sense.

 

Imagine playing tennis or squash with oven mitts on your hands. You could likely learn to play by using your other senses, but there remains a clear difference — your perception of grip strength and the angle of the racquet are altered. This is the same general principle that compares running barefoot to with shoes.


Learn how to run. Experts on barefoot running firmly believe that if you really want to learn how to run, it must be done barefoot. This way, we are able to listen to what our body is telling us. If it’s painful to run barefoot, then don’t run. Wearing shoes masks our ability to listen to our body’s messages.


Improved muscles of the feet and calves. This fact remains strong: by running barefoot, the muscles of the foot and calf are elicited much more, leading to increased strength and stability. The muscles in the foot are forced to become more involved as the natural arch of the foot is being utilised.


Reduced chronic pain. The most common benefit of running shoeless is also the main reason runners decide to try it. Reduced chronic pain is widely experienced as running barefoot changes the heel-strike dynamic, and reduces the stress on the lower joints.

Controversy
Studies on barefoot running have often been criticised for lack of evidence, or misrepresenting results, or for not being able to account for all the variables that exist between subjects. Things like proper running technique and access to adequate healthcare would have to be addressed prior to conducting these types of studies.


On the other hand, proponents of barefoot running are quick to point out that there is no evidence behind claims that shod running is better for health. Further, it is suggested that the natural position of running should not be questioned as the body evolved to run in the most efficient way possible without shoes.

Barefoot footwear


Considering trying out barefoot running but worried about your sensitive skin? You’re not alone! We’ve been conditioned with a lifetime of shoes to protect our feet from rough surfaces and textures, as well as hot and cold, leaving the underfoot skin unnaturally soft, thin, and very sensitive.

 

Thankfully, a series of brands have come out with barefoot mimicking products. Perhaps you’ve seen someone nonchalantly walking down the street with what looks like an ankle sock with 5 separate toes.

 

These specially designed shoes are made with different grades of thickness to protect the skin from terrain while leaving the foot in the natural position. With these shoes, the heel is not cushioned or sitting higher than it naturally would.

Jay is an award winning Australian online personal trainer who also operates a leading online supplement store at www.aminoz.com.au