What would likely happen if our parents never made us wear shoes as kids? Would we all end up with ‘bad feet’ as adults?
The answer is probably not. In fact the opposite is true.
The skin on the soles of our feet would adapt by thickening to protect us from sharp rocks and rough ground. The muscles in our feet would grow and develop to support our arches which in turn supports all of the joints above it. The increased feedback from our bare feet on the ground would send signals to our hips and core to keep our pelvis stable when walking or running. Even the way we walked and ran would change due to the position of our foot on the ground and the increased feedback our brains received from the movements in our foot and ankle joints. We would likely spend less time on the ground and more time in the air when running which would mean our joints would need to be controlled for a shorter space of time.
We still see barefoot communities in many parts of the world. These people often have very strong and flexible feet and suffer very few injuries in relation to walking or running.
So what happens when we put a person who grew up wearing inflexible thick soled shoes their whole life into minimalistic shoes or even no shoes at all? Will they instantly run better, have stronger and more flexible feet and experience fewer injuries?
Unfortunately, this is not the case. If we put all children’s hands in boxing gloves their whole lives and then asked them to play piano or hand stitch a button they would have no chance of succeeding. Shoes, like boxing gloves, give us little feedback from the environment around us causing our feet to become weak, our joints inflexible and our skin fragile. So when we try to run barefoot for the first time with the same training loads as we always have, of course we will become injured. The plantar fascia, achilles tendon and bones of the foot and leg will experience loads they are not accustomed to and will fail causing pain and injury. Not only that, but our motor patterns are not developed for this new type of running.
Wearing shoes makes it very easy to land on our heels because this area of the shoes is very well padded and so it doesn’t hurt to land here. In bare feet trying to land on your heels is extremely painful and we quickly learn to land more on the middle or front of the foot. If we have never learnt this pattern of running before then everything is going to work harder, particularly the calf complex.
So why recently has the running community become so obsessed with barefoot running if it might increase the risk of injury?
Well there are plenty of benefits to moving towards barefoot running or minimalistic shoes such as those offered by ‘Vibram’ or ‘Xero Shoes’. For one, the feet will get stronger which can decrease the likelihood of running injuries in the longer term and improve your endurance for longer runs. Over time, running technique can improve with barefoot running due to more feedback being received from the ground. Also, for every 100 grams of shoe there is an increase in energy cost of about 1%. So the lighter the shoes the faster you will go for a given output of energy.
But do we all really need to transition to barefoot running in order to be good runners?
Most of the technique changes that come about from barefoot can be taught through specific running drills negating the need for the transition. Barefoot running can also be quite dangerous with the risk of injury from glass or sharp rocks. So for the average 2x5km a week recreational runner there’s probably no need to transition, but for the die hard runner who wants to maximise their performance and loves the feeling of running on grass in bare feet then this can be an option for you. However, the process needs to be very slow. It takes as long as 2 years to effectively transition from shoe running to barefeet.
Before making any transition speak with your physiotherapist or podiatrist to ensure it is a safe and enjoyable process.
By Ben Frizzell
FREE RUNNING WORKSHOP
Wednesday 8th MAY, TIME 6:30pm
Location Wagga Netball Rooms - Equex
Find out how you can run faster, plus further strategies to improve your running efficiency and reduce risk of injury.
A perfect running workshop to help you prepare for the Wagga Trail Marathon.