By Myprotein Writer Celine Cantuniar
Whether you are walking down the busy streets of London or training at your local gym, you may have seen several people with odd, flat, penguin-like shoes on their feet (or perhaps even shoes with toes!)
These are most likely to be barefoot shoes (also referred to as “minimal footwear.”)
For more than 40 years, people in the western world have been running in plushy, chunky shoes with belief that they will prevent them from injury.
However, barefoot runners argue that minimal footwear is a healthier and safer way to run.
Before the conventional cushioned running shoe was invented, people used to run barefoot or simply wear sandals. They would race through grasslands without a care or even a thought about whether they were wearing air-cushioned-arch-supported-heel-reinforced-over-pronation shoes to protect them, as most of us would do nowadays.
They just ran, instinctively, without thinking about it.
Now, most of us believe that unless we have these massive, foam-built shoes strapped to our feet we are setting ourselves up for a host of running-related injuries.
The other group of people, the “Barefoot” runners, have a different opinion entirely. They believe that if we ran the way we instinctively did back then, we would prevent any injuries form happening at all.
However, this does not mean that we can run barefoot using the same bio-mechanics as we do when we run with cushioned shoes on. It is an entirely different running stride and it is essential that this specific form is carried out while wearing minimal footwear.
Barefoot Running Technique
Go to your nearest park, take off your shoes and socks (ignore the judgemental stares) and sprint as fast as you can on the grass. I guarantee you that you will notice a change in the way your feet hit the ground. You will notice that your heel will not strike the ground.
The first contact you make with the ground will be made with your forefoot. Your leg and rest of your foot will act like a biomechanical spring and propel you forward for your next stride.
If you are not sure what I am getting at here, try to picture what your stride looks like when you run in a pair of modern-day cushioned running shoes. You reach your leg forward, placing it in front of your torso, and out of line with the rest of your body.
The first point of contact with the ground is made with your heel; you then transition from your heel to your mid-foot and push off with your big-toe.
I should probably mention that this heel-striking running form is not the way every single person might run. Some people may naturally run on their mid-foot or forefoot.
Whether you are natural forefoot/mid-foot striker or are training yourself to do so, minimal footwear plays an important role in this style of running.
No Air, Gel or EVA Foam
Minimal footwear is a specific type of footwear designed to encourage a forefoot strike.
Unlike the everyday running shoe which usually consists of a large EVA foam mid-sole with a unique, brand-specific cushioning system e.g. “Gel” or “Air” cushions and a relatively high heel-to-toe drop (typically around 12 mm), a bare-foot running shoe has little to no cushioning – it is usually made of an insole and an outsole
The heel-to-toe drop is lower and varies depending on how minimal the shoe is designed to be.
The lower the heel-to-toe drop the more minimal, and “natural feeling” the shoes is designed to be.
Due to the lack of cushioning in minimal footwear, if you strike the ground with your heel first you will feel a much greater impact and it will be uncomfortable on the joints and legs. By landing on your forefoot or mid-foot your body is able to absorb the impact much for effectively.
The shock created when your foot hits the ground is able to travel vertically up your shin, pass through your knee and hips and be released from the upper body. This greatly reduces the pressure on your joints and your body in general.
Whereas striking with your heel cases the impact to be absorbed mainly by your ankles, knees and hips, possibly resulting in a host of injuries (e.g. shin splints/fractures).
Minimal footwear is also designed to be much more flexible and have a large toe-box to make it easier and more comfortable to a forefoot strike.
Beginning Barefoot Running
If you are an experienced runner and have had no running-related injuries in the past, perhaps you feel no need to transition to this running style. However, trying something new in your field of sport does no harm and might even improve your performance.
If you are a new runner who is just starting off barefoot running could be an excellent track for you to take as you can train yourself from the very start. One thing to keep in mind is choosing the right footwear. As I said, minimal footwear comes is various different degrees of “minimalism”.
If you are just starting off then it might be better to choose the most supportive and cushioned type of barefoot shoe.
Barefoot Running – Yes or No?
Barefoot running is often ridiculed for the idea of pacing around areas that may cause serious damage to your feet. However, there are adequate arguments for both.
Benefits of Barefoot Running
1) Improved Balance
Wearing normal running shoes fails to activate the more prominent muscles in the feet that hold responsibility for improving co-ordination and balance.
2) Strengthen foot muscles
Running barefoot regularly will allow for an increased natural motion that strengthens muscles, ligaments and tendons of the foot.
3) Possibly reduce injuries
As mentioned, such as shin splits/fractures. Running without the heel lift process can help the calf muscle and Achilles tendon stretch properly to lengthen, potentially avoiding such injuries.
Disadvantages of Barefoot Running
1) Minimising foot protection
Running barefoot can obviously cause glass, rocks, etc to insert themselves into your foot. This is probably the most obvious disadvantage, however – actions can be taken to help decrease the chances of this happening. For example, choosing to run on sand, grass, park paths. Barefoot running shoes do help also!
These are inevitable – but they won’t always appear. The beginning stages of barefoot running will result in slightly blistering (just like purchasing new running shoes whilst you break them in.)
3) Increase strain
Barefoot running for the first time will be a shock to your feet. They may start to become overworked – ease yourself into it.
Take home message
Barefoot running will always be an ongoing debate – you may exceed your potential and increase your performance or simply find zero benefits.
Start with slow, low-mileage runs to get yourself used to the running form and then gradually increase it.