Written by Kathryn Anderson

The Verdict on Barefoot Running

As we get so many questions on this topic in the clinic, I thought I’d write this month’s blog on Barefoot Running from a physiotherapist’s point of view.

Some of you keen runners out there may have already heard of barefoot running, but for those who haven’t, it’s a movement that has taken off around the world.

The theory is that, historically, humankind has always run without shoes. The invention of shock-absorbing, arch-supporting runners is really only a product of the last 20-30 years.

Those around my age will still remember when the first kid came to school in Reebok Pumps, or even how the Harlem Globetrotters still wore Converse All-Stars in the 1980s!

Christopher McDougall published his best-selling book “Born to Run” in 2009 and this instigated the massive shift towards Barefoot Running. Christopher, who was a runner himself, was frustrated with his ongoing injuries and so he tracks down and documented members of the reclusive Tarahumara Indian tribe in Mexico who were famed for their long-distance running in, of course, bare feet.

Following this, many versions of the “Barefoot Running Shoe” were released including Nike Frees.

As well as the historical argument, one of the other biggest supporter reasons for Barefoot Running is that, despite the high degree of control we are putting into our runners in the way of arch support and individualized fitting, the rate of overuse injuries such as Achilles tendinosis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints and ITB syndrome, has not decreased and may even have increased in the last 30 years, potentially because we are “over-supporting” the foot when we should really be encouraging movement.

Many highly respected Sports Doctors hold this concern about expensive, highly technical sports shoes, including Dr. Peter Brukner (Twitter: @PeterBrukner) who is well known for his involvement in AFL and his articles in The Age.

Because the motivation for many people to start Barefoot Running is related to minimizing injuries, we get lots of questions about both the shoes and the specific style of training. Personally, I love the concept of Barefoot Running and I wholly believe that if we under-use an area of our body, we are rendering it weak and therefore leaving it prone to injury. The high incidence of back pain in the western world is a good example of this.

What we do know though as physios is that every single body has a biomechanical threshold and we minimize injury best by working within this.

For example, if you had been running 5km, three times weekly over the last 5 years in shoes made specifically for pronators, your muscles would have trained to accommodate this support and you would probably find that, by switching 100% of your training to a pair of Vibrams, you would probably wind up with an injury within a few weeks. Whereas by split-training between two sets of shoes (eg 2 x 5km in your supportive shoes plus 2 x 3km in your Vibrams), your muscles would have a chance to strengthen accordingly and you would minimize the chance of injury. For many of us, our strength and stability mean that we are only designed to run short distances in barefoot running shoes, however in addition to building up your running tolerance, you can also do core strengthening, Pilates or cross training to improve your body’s natural shock-absorbing capacity and tolerance to these types of shoes.

I once had a guy come into the clinic who was training for his first marathon and had the most terrible shin splints and had done every km of his training in his Vibrums because he once saw a professional runner wearing them. Unfortunately for him, his shin splints turned out to be a stress fracture, but with a bit more planning while training for his marathon, he could have prevented this problem altogether!

So in conclusion, we do find that Barefoot Running shoes can either make or break a runner, but if you have a specific plan which is consistent with your body’s current state of fitness and training, Barefoot Running can be an amazing experience!