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Barefoot Running

Barefoot Running:

Watch the Barefoot, Running Harvard Professor Daniel Liberman: 'The Barefoot Professor'

There has been an ongoing buzz in the running community about the benefits of barefoot running. This buzz has been translated by the shoe manufactures into many different barefoot running shoe offerings. Why all of this interest in barefoot running? What could the benefits be and how best to use barefoot running in a normal training program?

The modern running shoe popularized in the early 70’s, popularized “Air” and other cushioning technologies with a primary goal of increasing performance and decreasing the risk of injury. Injury risk prevention is a critical goal in much of the research and development of the running shoe manufacturers. One main goal of cushioning in running shoes was to decrease the incidence of impact related injuries like stress fractures in the foot, ankle and lower legs. Excessive cushioning however can lead to instability of the foot during running and increase the risk of pronation related injuries. Injuries related to excessive foot pronation include patelofemerol syndrome, iliotibial band syndrome, medial shin splints, plantar fascitis as well as other joint and soft tissue pain.

Modern shoe construction techniques outside of the athletic shoe market have also focused on cushioning with the use of injection molding techniques using foam materials. The cushioning from foam and rubber has replaced the structural stability and durability of harder leather materials used in traditional construction techniques. Although the original focus of cushioning was to protect the athlete during sport specific activity, these highly cushioned shoes used for day to day activities probably increase the risk of foot pain and injury. There is probably a greater incidence of lower extremity injury as a result of the shift to a more cushioned shoe environment. Although there is no research that would support this notion, it might be that excessive cushioning in shoes over time allows the muscles, ligaments and tendinous structures to decondition leading to injury susceptibility. This deconditioning process over time could limit the soft tissues threshold in injury prevention.

How does barefoot running play into all of this? Well, barefoot running is probably getting back to basics. There are clear biomechanical changes seen during barefoot running when compared to shoe running. The changes in foot strike, knee and hip position during barefoot running have a profound impact on forces that are encountered when barefoot. The barefoot shoes are minimalist shoes that provide very little cushioning and basically just act as a protective shell to prevent skin injury. The original intent for shoes throughout thousands of years was to protect the feet from the harsh external environment. Barefoot running is a way of reconditioning the muscles, ligaments and tendinous structures that through a lifetime of walking in cushioned shoes have been deconditioned and lazy.

The running shoe manufacturers are pretty good about educating runners about what type of shoe they should buy based on their running biomechanics and also when they should replace their running shoes based on overall mileage run. Their is no consensus, however, about how to best use the barefoot shoes for normal training.

Common sense must prevail when using any of the barefoot running shoes to aid in your training program. It makes sense to use these shoes as an adjunct to a normal running schedule. Just like a normal training schedule will vary the number of long and short runs, speed play, interval training and rest.

Outside of the great African runners including Abe Bakilia in the 60’s and Zola Budd in the 80’s, rarely do you see barefoot running at the elite level. When training, use barefoot training in moderation as a part of a well rounded training schedule.