A Look Into the Benefits of Barefoot Running

A Look Into the Benefits of Barefoot Running
Posted on 01/23/2020
A Look Into the Benefits of Barefoot Running


Jeremy Parsons BS, LAT, ATC
ThunderRidge High School
Asst. Athletic Trainer



Over my extensive running career through college, I have seen many athletes injured, and yet they often feel like it is their shoes causing the problems. So they come back with expensive shoes that advertise as being the cure-all to their issues but don't see any progress.

Participation in running has dramatically increased over the years, as it has been shown that running provides a positive impact on long-term heart and joint health. Through research findings, 50% of recreational distance runners will suffer an injury annually. Other studies found the same to be true for 30% of NCAA men's cross country runners.

A biomechanical factor that has been a key point of research recently is the concept of barefoot running or barefoot activity in general. There is an evolutionary medical hypothesis that the human body is adapted to a barefoot running style. A natural barefoot running pattern can be described as a mild forefoot strike, where the heel initially does not strike.

There is a reason to believe that today's shoes can contribute to weak and inflexible feet since most strength and foot biomechanics comes from continuous use of shoes during childhood. The human body is highly responsive to loading during growth and the normal unshod (barefoot) mechanical environment during human evolution is different from the more cushioned, supportive environment that is common today among shod people. Shoes with stiff soles, arch supports, and features that control pronation and multiple other movements may prevent muscles and bones from adapting to stresses that used to be normal to the human body.

Individuals who grow up wearing highly supportive shoes can develop weak feet, especially noted in the arch. Such weakness may limit the foot's ability to provide stability, along with other functions. Minimalist runners (barefoot or minimally cushioned shoes) are reported to have less variation in arch form and have lower rates of pes planus (flat foot) with a lower frequency of other related foot abnormalities. Minimalist shoes have shown to help with the strength of the foot. A strong foot has been shown to be more flexible and better able to control excessive pronation and limit knee adduction (knee forced inward), where excessive knee adduction movement has proved to be a strong contributor to the development of running-related injuries in long-distance runners within cross country and track.

Different Foot Strike Patterns Naturally-shod runners, when barefoot, for instance, are more likely to run with a rearfoot strike on soft surfaces like grass and to forefoot strike or midfoot strike when running on hard surfaces.

One theory that is shared between articles is that barefoot runners have more variable bodily movements than shod runners because they experience more proprioception (knowing where the body is in motion) from the ground to their feet. Proprioceptors on the bottom of the foot activate reflexes and help the nerves make decisions that help increase stability and avoid injury. If this theory is accurate, then the way in which people run when barefoot is likely to reflect evolved proprioceptive adaptations to maintain stability, avoid painful impacts, and regulate leg stiffness.

Barefoot runners present as forefoot strikers and, as a result, have reduced rates of loading compared with the majority of shod runners who present as rearfoot strikers. Barefoot running form is related to a reduced stride length that reduces the weight placed on the legs per run and can lead to a reduction in running-related injuries. However, a forefoot landing shows an increased load to the posterior calf musculature, which could potentially lead to calf strains and Achilles tendonitis in runners that switch suddenly to minimalist running without their lower body being used to the stress.

Shoes with cushioned, elastic heels may be another example of a counterproductive way of treating symptoms, not causes, of injury because the heel cushion lessens the pain caused by impact on a hard surface. This kind of pain could be an adaptation to prevent the body from running in a way that generates repeated high impact peaks in the first place. Focusing on treating the causes rather than the symptoms of pain also may lead to different ways of thinking about common injuries such as plantar fasciitis and runner's knee. Plantar fasciitis, for example, is caused by too much tension on the plantar fascia and often is treated by prescribing orthotics or replacing one's shoes, which reduces loads on the plantar fascia.

An evolutionary medicine perspective suggests that these treatments only lessen the symptoms of plantar fasciitis rather than curing whatever biomechanical problem causes the plantar fascia to be overloaded in the first place. Thus, a useful preventative therapy may be to strengthen the muscles of the arch or alter a runner's kinematics to change the way the arch is loaded dynamically. In order to know more about these strengthening exercises, a Physical Therapist or Physiologists can be useful.

Anatomical structure assessments and corrective exercises are encouraged to be placed into any rehabilitation or fitness program. The most helpful insight we can gain from barefoot running is the idea of how the body was adapted to run in the first place. People who run with minimal support from a shoe receive more proprioceptive feedback, shorten their stride length and increase their stride frequencies, avoid rearfoot strike and impact peaks on hard surfaces, keep low joint movements, and joined by stronger foot musculature, presents as ancient adaptations for avoiding injury.

To sum this all up, "how one runs probably is more important than what is on one's feet, but what is on one's feet may affect how one runs." - Lieberman, DE.


References:

Lieberman, DE. What We Can Learn About Running From Barefoot Running. Exerc. and Sport Sci. Reviews. 2012; 40(2):63-72.

Nigg BM. Biomechanics of Sports Shoes. Calgary (Canada): Topline Printing; 2010, p. 300.

Pohl MB, Hamill J, Davis IS. Biomechanical and anatomic factors associated with a history of plantar fasciitis in female runners. Clin. J. Sport Med. 2009; 19: 372–6.

Jenkins DW, Cauthon DJ. Barefoot running claims and controversies: a review of the literature. J. Am. Pod. Med. Assoc. 2010; 101: 231–46.

D’Août K, Pataky TC, De Clercq D, Aerts P. The effects of habitual footwear use; foot shape and function in native barefoot walkers. Footwear Sci. 2009; 1: 81–94.

Rao UB, Joseph B. The influence of footwear on the prevalence of flat foot. A survey of 2300 children. J. Bone Joint Surg. 1992; 74-B: 525–7.
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