Most people who are runners of any sort have heard of the minimalist, natural and barefoot movement. Made up of people who like a more natural feel when they run, this breed of runner wears shoes with less support, or none at all, when out for a session. Barefoot runners are just that, barefoot. No shoes, no socks. Minimalist runners want to be more natural than those who run in traditional running shoes, but also want to protect their feet from pavement and potentially dangerous debris. Minimalist shoes such as the Vibram FiveFingers offer little support to those who want the feeling of natural running while providing superficial protection to the soles and sides of the feet. The difference between barefoot and minimalist is small enough that in this article, they will be grouped together and referred to only as barefoot or barefoot running.
Barefoot running has been shown to improve running economy, making shoeless runners more efficient than those who run with them. It does this by allowing your body to use muscles, tendons and ligaments to spring your foot back off the ground rather than using the cushioning of the shoe to absorb the shock of landing a stride. With shoes on, runners often land on their heels, allowing the cushioning of the shoes which leads to a large amount of force to be transferred into joints such as the hip, knee and ankle. Without shoes, runners tend to land on their mid- or fore-foot, giving the muscles, ligaments and tendons around the hip, knee and foot absorb the shock of landing a stride. Several research reports have found that barefoot running has made the form of those who run barefoot more efficient, and proponents claim it eliminates running related injuries but there isn’t research to support their claims.
That being said, barefoot running also puts your feet at risk for serious injury from unseen sharp objects in the road, grass or sand. The benefits you could garner from barefoot running, according to some research, might actually depend on how your foot naturally strikes. Heel strikers are more likely to get hurt without shoes than with them, and more likely to be injured than those who are mid- or fore- foot strikers, for the anatomical reasons mentioned above. You have to respect your natural running motion while also understanding that you have probably been in shoes for most of your life and it can take quite a while to retrain your body.
If you choose to give barefoot running a try, start out slowly. Have a professional evaluate your stride and foot strike, go only a short distance, start indoors and use a minimalist shoe.
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