You may have noticed that there has been a stir on social media barefoot Running, with many proponents calling it breathless as the most natural way to run.
But not everyone is a fan. Claims about walking barefoot can range from “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done” to “I tried it and now I’m in excruciating pain.” So what does the research say about dropping your usual runner and start walking barefoot, and why does it seem to work for some people and not for others? Our new paper, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, tested a new way to switch from traditional shoes to barefoot running and examined why some runners might not tolerate barefoot running. We have identified two key characteristics of runners who have failed to transition to barefoot running.
What we did and what we found
We studied 76 runners who transitioned to running barefoot over 20 weeks—using a minimal running shoe as an in-between phase between traditional ones shoe and barefoot walking.
The runners ran traditionally To run Shoes for the first four weeks. For the next four weeks, they increased their time in minimal running shoes by no more than 20% of their total running volume each week.
After running another four weeks full-time in minimal shoes, they spent the next four weeks gradually increasing their barefoot running time by no more than 20% per week.
Finally they ran barefoot for another four weeks.
We also asked the runners to strengthen and stretch their calves and feet to support the muscles as they transitioned from traditional shoes to barefoot running.
Using this strategy, 70% of runners were able to successfully transition to barefoot running within 20 weeks.
Pain in the calf when walking in minimal shoes and pain in the foot when walking barefoot were the main reasons for not being able to switch to barefoot walking.
So why not barefoot To run suit some people? We identified two traits that were present in runners who did not go barefoot.
The first ground contact with the heel while running was one thing, the other very mobile feet (meaning the arch is more flexible when the foot is carrying weight).
Why? It’s too early to say for sure, but we do know that walking barefoot tends to increase stress on foot and calf tissues.
Our results seem to indicate that this tissue loading was not well tolerated in those who usually have heel-to-ground contact and/or have highly mobile feet when walking barefoot or in minimal shoes.
This can lead to pain and eventually injury. We also know from other studies that walking barefoot or in minimal shoes leads to a higher rate of foot injuries (such as stress fractures of the foot bones) and shin and calf pain. Conventional shoes usually offer more support and cushioning.
It appears that runners who typically run with their heels have difficulty switching ground contact with more midfoot or forefoot, which tends to be encouraged when running barefoot.
Those with flexible feet may have to work their muscles harder to stiffen the foot when they push the foot off the ground while running.
Perhaps a more gradual transition period, where the limit is 10% (not 20%) weekly increases in running in minimal shoes or barefoot over a longer period (e.g. 40 weeks) would enable those who wish to run barefoot enable to do so without pain or injury.
Top tips for successful barefoot running If you want to try barefoot running, keep these tips in mind: Make the transition gradually over at least 20 weeks. If needed, take longer Use minimal shoes as an intermediate step, limit increases in running in minimal shoes or barefoot to no more than 20% of the total distance run per week if possible Use pain during and in the 24 hours after the run as a guide – especially if you think that the severity is unacceptable, consult a sports and exercise medicine specialist (such as a physical therapist or podiatrist) if you notice this Pains or need help transitioning – especially if you have a history of injury, consult a qualified running coach to support your running program including barefoot running, protect your feet by running in well-lit conditions so you can see obstacles, and avoidance They mix excessively hot, cold, or sharp surfaces – people who run in many different types of shoes report fewer injuries than those who only run in one type of shoe.
It may also be that some runners just aren’t able to make the transition from their traditional running shoes to running barefoot.
Barefoot walking may not be for everyone. It won’t make you faster or reduce overall injury rates, and there’s no evidence that running barefoot burns more calories than running with shoes.
But if you’re thinking of trying barefoot running, a gradual transition – with a minimal running shoe as an intermediate step – is more likely to result in a successful transition and keep you going.
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