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A Healthy Curiosity: Is barefoot running better for you?

October 10th 2013 / Peta Bee

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The new footwear trend in fitness is to go without - or at least wear a shoe that mimics barefoot running. But is baring our soles better for us? Peta Bee finds out

There is always a trainer of the moment, a shoe that promises to propel you to better butt toning, faster running times or fewer injuries. Who hasn’t been seduced at one time or another by a sole with pockets of visible air, zig-zag springs or an integral wobbleboard that promises to transform their workout?

Now, though, less is considered more with minimalism being the buzzword in workout footwear; either shedding your shoes completely or opting for the footgloves of the fitness world that strip away gadgetry and claim to allow the feet to move in a natural and uninhibited way. By mimicking barefootedness, the new arrivals are said not only to improve balance and stimulate the nerve endings in the soles of the feet, but to prompt a better running style that gives rise to stronger limbs, better posture and fewer injuries.

What’s wrong with trainers?

Highly cushioned, air-injected running shoes were once thought to provide the ultimate protection for our feet. But in recent years, the emerging field of barefoot science has suggested otherwise. Barefoot enthusiasts believe that conventional workout shoes constrict our feet and force us to move in a way that can trigger pain and postural problems. They point to studies that suggest highly structured, overly-supportive running shoes encourage people to hit the ground heel-first, generating high-impact forces equivalent to three times the body’s weight that reverberate through the feet to the ankles, knees, hips and back. It is this impact that contributes to the leg injuries that afflict up to 80 per cent of runners at some point.

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Nike Barefoot Running Shoe

Is barefoot better?

By going barefoot, the theory is that we naturally land more lightly and nearer to the balls of the feet, generating less pounding which should translate to fewer problems. Going shoeless or even switching to less bulky trainers means you are forced to use muscles in your feet - mostly in the arch - that are usually very weak. Minimalist footwear is billed as the next best thing to baring the soles of the feet, offering some protection but simulating that natural movement and providing the same benefits.

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Should we all be making the switch to shoeless running?

Not so quickly. Critics of barefoot running claim that, after years of wearing ordinary trainers, 75 per cent of us are programmed to land on their heels and would not adjust to wearing no shoes immediately. In fact, were we to ditch our ordinary trainers in favour of more minimalist footwear we could be asking for trouble. “People buy these footgloves without realising that they need to work at completely overhauling their running style in order to use them,” says personal trainer Matt Roberts. “A process of intensive adaptation involving a lot of time and effort is required to alter the habits of a lifetime.”

Forcing change can cause real problems. For runners who switch to barefoot or minimal shoes in the belief that they will strengthen lower leg and feet muscles, there is a risk that the lack of cushioning can increase the likelihood injury rather than reduce it. This was demonstrated in recent study: 10 of 19 runners who switched to doing some of their mileage in Vibram FiveFingers barefoot shoes showed signs of foot bone injury at the end of the 10-week trial, compared to only one of 17 runners who did all of their running in ordinary, cushioned trainers.

Does barefoot running improve your style?

This is an area of huge debate. Barefoot fans say landing on our heels (or heel-striking) is common among trainer wearers and sends impact reverberating up the legs and to the spine. They insist we are designed to land on the balls of our feet, something we do more naturally when we wear no shoes. However, not everyone is convinced by the argument.

One study that was published in the journal PLOS One asked 38 traditionally barefoot Daasanach tribes-people to run without shoes along a track fitted with a pressure plate. What the scientists at George Washington University found surprised them - almost all of the runners naturally landed on their heels. When asked to run at a comfortable pace of 8 minutes per mile, the preference for landing on the heel was particularly marked: indeed only 24 per cent of the runners were mid-foot strikers and only 4 per cent landed on the balls of their feet.

Many experts like Paddy McGrath, a former international runner turned coach, believe the importance of running style is often overplayed. Adjustments to running technique are best made during childhood when muscle and mind are malleable enough to make long-term changes. By the time we are adults, McGrath says, most of us settle into a running style that suits our body and build. “Trying to make huge changes in your 30s and 40s can be counter-productive - it creates tension that you don’t need when you run,” McGrath says. “The key to successful running comes down to a relaxed style, even if that style is slightly ragged. The perfect running style is actually just one that works for you.”

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Adidas Women's Adipure Gazelle 2 Shoes

If you really want to go barefoot, where should you start?

Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and a leading expert on barefoot running, says it is certainly not just a case of kicking off your shoes and going for it. So how do you start? Slowly, says Liam McManus, a podiatrist in London.

“If you do want to go down the barefoot route, the key thing is to progress slowly and carefully,” he says. “Take tiny barefoot steps by walking around the house all the time in bare feet. Don’t even wear socks - get your toes used to spreading out.”

Once you have become accustomed to walking barefoot for at least a couple of hours a day, Professor Lieberman suggests practising running over very short distances - 40-60 metres - on a hard but smooth surface like a tennis court or a running track. Gradually build up to no more than 400 metres barefoot running every other day until you are completely comfortable with it.

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Is there a compromise?

Wearing nothing on your feet sounds appealingly organic, but there are obvious practical issues - particularly if you live in a city. So what’s the compromise? Most experts agree we should spend more time barefoot at home and even at the gym or when doing yoga and Pilates. To free your feet and allow them space to move is a good thing. But unless you always run on sand or springy grass in warm temperatures, some footwear is advisable.

With the spectrum of running shoes now stretching from highly structured stability and motion control trainers with ultimate levels to the Vibram 5-Finger footgloves and barely-there Vivo Barefoot shoes designed to be little more than a second skin for the feet, the question is what to choose?

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Vibram Fivefingers

“There are now a range of shoes with a heel drop - the differential of the height off the ground of the heel and of the forefoot- ranging from 0mm to 12mm,” says Daleen de Ronde, an Olympic podiatrist. “My advice would be to gradually aim for something in the middle which takes strain off the Achilles tendon, promotes forward momentum and maintains some cushioning in the heel. They are probably the best thing for your feet and body.”


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