Welcome back to our post on barefoot running. This has been a really interesting topic for me to follow over the past few years, especially as the research has really grown in the area, so I'm excited to get into some practical recommendations this post. Last post we discussed some of the arguments put forth by barefoot running enthusiasts. We also got a chance to review the mechanics of barefoot running and how that might affect the injury profile of each type of runner. Although no one can yet say that barefoot running reduces injury, there are some good things about it that might benefit you. So is it right for you?
Should I try barefoot running?
It depends on what's going on in your body. Since forefoot striking decreases the forces on the knee, it might be a good idea to try barefoot running if you experience knee problems. In a survey conducted among barefoot runners it was reported that knee injuries were the most commonly resolved when transitioning to barefoot running. However, if you struggle with ankle injuries, the shift in load with a forefoot strike might be problematic for you. The most commonly reported barefoot running injuries have been achilles tendinopathy and foot stress fractures.
At the end of the day it's not as simple as saying 'yes, barefoot running is great and everyone should do it!' It's important to assess the situation for each individual runner based on current health and injury history before considering changing running technique.
Making the switch has some risks
Making the shift to barefoot running should be done carefully as it does come with its own risks.
1) The transition period is particularly high risk
Runners are more prone to injury during the transition period. This is because it takes time for the body to adapt to the new stresses encountered. Surprisingly the risk is higher than you'd think. Ridge and his colleagues followed 19 runners as they transitioned in to barefoot running using the vibram five finger shoes. They took an MRI at the start and 10 weeks in to the program. 10 out of the 19 runners showed a bone stress injury 10 weeks in. That's more than 50 percent! Two of them were full fledged stress fractures.
Another option some people try is transitioning using partial minimal shoes such as the Nike Free. These types of shoes have a mild heel to toe drop, and some heel cushioning and arch support, but less than the typical running shoe. The problem with this option is that runners still seem to have enough cushion to continue landing on the heel, but with less cushion to protect them. A prospective study found that wearing these shoes resulted in more injuries than either being barefoot or wearing cushioned shoes. So if you want to transition to barefoot it's best to go to the minimal footwear or barefoot right off the bat.
2) Taking off your shoes doesn't automatically change your footstrike pattern.
Running without any shoes on doesn't automatically change how your foot lands on the ground. In the lab it was found that when shod runners ran barefoot 83% of them continued to heel strike. That means that if you are a heel striker and you head out for a barefoot run, chances are that you're still landing on your heel. Now you've exposed yourself to a loading rate about sevenfold greater than when you were in shoes! The lesson here is that it's important to get the right coaching and feedback when you make the switch. It takes time and training to learn how to forefoot strike. One study indicated that it might not even be possible for everyone to learn the new mechanics of forefoot striking.
Tips for the transition
Barefoot running might not be as 'natural' as some want to believe. For most people it isn't an instinctive switch to a forefoot strike pattern. It takes coaching and time for the body to adapt. If you're planning on giving it a try here are some recommendations.
1) Get some help with your technique. A running coach or sports physical therapist can give you some instruction and/or cues to ensure you are using the right technique.
2) Condition your foot and calf muscles to prepare for the new stresses. It's likely that your muscles will fatigue quickly at first, leaving your bones susceptible to injury. It just takes these few simple exercises.
3) Start slow. Give your bones, joints and muscles time to adapt to the new stresses of barefoot running. See below for the graduated loading plan developed by Warden and collegues. Take note that it starts with just 30min of barefoot walking!
4) If it doesn't feet good don't keep doing it! Some soreness in your muscles is to be expected, just like you'd have with starting any new exercise. However, sharp or prolonged pain could indicate a real injury – don't push it! It might not be right for you.
According to the research there are a lot of positive things that can come from barefoot running. For some, the change in mechanics might really improve how their body is able to tolerate the forces of running. For others, it might be a good idea to stick with the shoes. If you think barefoot running might be right for you consult a professional who can assess your situation and help coach you through the transition period. But no matter what, it will be important for you to progress slowly and pay attention to what your body is telling you. Barefoot or not though, enjoy that summer running!
Altman, A. R., and I. S. Davis. "Prospective Comparison of Running Injuries between Shod and Barefoot Runners." Br J Sports Med 50.8 (2016): 476-80. Print.
Davis, I. S. "The Re-Emergence of the Minimal Running Shoe." J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 44.10 (2014): 775-84. Print.
Krabak, B. J., et al. "Barefoot Running." PM R 3.12 (2011): 1142-9. Print.