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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Barefoot Craze

Being part of the shoe industry, I got the chance to attend the APMA's Annual Scientific Meeting.
(American Podiatric Medical Association, in case you were wondering).

One of the hot topics this year is barefoot running.
I know many of you are interested it as well so I thought I'd take the time to share what was covered at the APMA and throw in some personal thoughts as well.

First, the APMA's position on barefoot running:
Barefoot running has become an increasing trend, and a possible alternative or training adjunct to running with shoes. While anecdotal evidence and testimonials proliferate on the Internet and in the media about the possible health benefits of barefoot running, research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long term effects of this practice.

Barefoot running has been touted as improving strength and balance, while promoting a more natural running style. However, risks of barefoot running include a lack of protection--which may lead to injuries such as puncture wounds--and increased stress on the lower extremities. Currently, inconclusive scientific research has been conducted regarding the benefits and/or risks of barefoot running. (APMA)
In layman's terms: their position is that they have no position.

If nothing else, this should be the main takeaway:
Regardless of what anyone tells you (proponents or opponents) there is no study that conclusively measures the effects of barefoot running.

Both supporting and opposing evidence was presented at the discussion with the conclusion being just as the APMA position states.

Here is some fodder for both sides:

  •  Barefoot running does strengthen muscles in the feet. Whether this benefits overall physiology is still unknown.
  • There are many people who claim to have had pain (back, knee, hip, etc) disappear after transitioning to barefoot running
  • Runners tend to land on the balls of their feet, rather than their heels, which proponents claim is "more natural".
  • Because your bare feet are more vulnerable, runners tend to run more cautiously and are more aware of their surroundings
  • Studies have shown that barefoot running decreases stress and impact on the feet and legs.
  • Not really supporting evidence, but running barefooted changes your running style, shortening stride length and increasing turnover rate.

  • Podiatrists have seen an increase in the number of stress fractures in patients (most claiming to have had pain after starting barefoot running regimens).
  • A poll of elite runners showed that while many utilized barefoot running exercises, few exceeded using them in more than 10% of their training and none had reported an increase in performance.
  • Your feet are highly vulnerable to the external environment. Puncture wounds are common (tetanus does not sound like fun) and you need to be cautious of the temperature (I assume frostbitten or baked feet is not fun either).
Overall, there seems to be trend leaning towards the careful and methodical introduction of barefoot running into training regimens.
Even the podiatrists presenting acknowledged that they utilize barefoot running in their own exercise.

However, there are alternatives to going completely barefoot....
'Minimalist footwear' is the latest trend in the major running brands (Saucony, Asics, Brooks, New Balance). I say 'major' brands because Vibram, the makers of the 'Five Fingers', is not primarily a running shoe brand and their shoes were initially marketed as canoeing/water shoes.
[If the demand is there, perhaps I will follow up with a post on the technicalities of minimalist shoes and the various models available.]

In addition to minimalist footwear, there is another movement called "Good Form Running" (GFR).
It promotes a different style of running that doesn't focus on the equipment so much as the mechanics of running.
I have not read any literature or heard anything that supports this style, but as it closely mimics your posture as if you were running barefooted, I assume any benefits of barefoot running would be similar.

My take:
Again, there appear to be benefits to barefoot running and you may want a small part of your training to be barefoot running. I think of it like 'cross-training your feet'.
However, while we may have evolved to run barefooted, we did not evolve to run on hard surfaces like pavement (see: stress fractures), so if possible barefoot training should be done on grass or other softer surfaces.
I think a good median is to start with cushioned minimalist footwear and maybe some GFR to build up your foot strength. Thus, you get the potential benefits of barefoot running with few of the risks.

I believe the barefoot movement is here to stay and even if actual barefoot running is not widespread, footwear construction will have fundamentally changed to be more minimalist.
Additionally, as more studies of its effects are completed, better training guides will arise to help athletes transition safely to include it in their workout programs.

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