You’ve seen those funky foot-glove Vibram Five Finger shoes selling out, Born to Run on display in bookstores, and more and more runners hitting the track without running shoes. But hold onto those sneakers: Abruptly adopting a running form that is foreign to your normal stride can be just as dangerous as running with poor form in regular running shoes.
“We understand the science behind it, but are very cautious by the way we position it with customers,” said Chris Schenone, who founded the specialty store Running Revolution with his brother, Tim. Their stores in Campbell and Santa Cruz have been selling Vibram barefoot shoes and several minimalist models since they first came out. Yet he presses runners to do more research about the technique before wholly embracing it.
Books, magazines, science journals, and newspapers claim that running barefoot or in minimalist shoes – lightweight shoes with less arch support than traditional running shoes – protects runners. Bulky modern running shoes, the theory goes, have altered our natural gait by forcing us to run heel-to-toe, which tends to cause impact-related injuries. The hips, back, and knees are especially vulnerable. If you ditch the shoes, you can run more naturally, according to enthusiasts.
Barefoot runners strike the ground with the front or middle of their foot instead of landing heel to toe, according to research by Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. This does help protect against impact-related injuries. And because this type of injury is very common, many people immediately want to adopt the technique – running with a light stride, pitter-pattering on the balls of their feet. The idea is simple, but running specialists, podiatrists, medical exercise specialists, and experienced barefoot runners alike encourage new barefoot runners to gain strength first through a slow, methodical, and progressive transition.
Amy LaPine is barefoot runner from Los Gatos, CA who has embraced the new style for the past three years. She’s been a runner for more than twenty years. At one point, she trained for the Olympics. For her, it was obvious to go slow, despite her excitement about her new Vibrams. LaPine did not start barefoot running in earnest for a full year until she was able to comfortably walk in her barefoot shoes. “Barefoot running is a skill and it requires a significant change as well as patience on the part of the runner,” she said.
"Every person runs differently depending on the shoes they normally wear, the way they land on their feet, and their overall form," explained Tim Schenone. These characteristics all affect the time it takes to successfully transition. For instance, an experienced runner who has worn bulky and supportive running shoes his entire life would require more training and a longer transition into barefoot running than a person who already walks barefoot as much as possible. Schenone, who once tore his Achilles tendon (which attaches the calf to the heel), is passionate about cautioning people to take careful and progressive steps toward the new running form. “Start with something manageable," he suggested. "Study it, and work it into your natural gait.”
Even if running barefoot reduces some injuries, it may cause other types of harm. Because minimalist shoes require forefoot or mid-foot striking, the vertical load of our bodies – the force with which your foot hits the ground – can strain several parts of the feet. Dr. Douglas Robinson, a podiatrist located in Campbell, works with quite a few patients who have hurt themselves while running in minimalist shoes. Many have suffered stress fractures of their lesser metatarsals – the long bones that make up the arch of the foot. Robinson has also seen issues with Achilles tendons and sesamoids – the small bones that make up the forefoot -- and capsulitis, an inflammation of the joints where the toes meet the metatarsals.
Robinson feels barefoot running has a great deal of potential. In particular, he said, runners with knee, lower back, or hip injuries have benefitted from the technique because of the lighter stride involved. “As a training tool, there are real benefits," Robinson said. But he suggests starting slow on forgiving terrain, a treadmill, grass, or a track-like surface. "To get out from the get-go and say ‘I’m a barefoot minimalist,’ I think they could really subject themselves to unnecessary harm,” he said.
"Runners should gradually build strength in the feet and calf muscles," said Chris Hallford, a certified medical exercise specialist. He encourages new barefoot runners start out little by little and build up a tolerance. “Walking in the sand and dirt with no shoes at all is a great start to strengthening the proper muscles needed for barefoot running,” he said.
LaPine also advises making small changes in walking patterns throughout the day, such as going barefoot around the house or out on a field for fifteen minutes a day. Ligaments, tendons and muscles need time to strengthen, stretch, and adjust to the new form. This is particularly important for runners who have habitually run heel-to-toe in supportive shoes. They will use different parts of their legs and feet when walking or running barefoot.
Through gradual training, LaPine said, she has greatly benefitted from her transition to barefoot running. She now prefers to leave her regular running shoes in the closet. "One run in my regular shoes, my knee pain came back and my calf muscles were not engaging in the same way,” she recalled.
With patience, anyone can eventually enjoy the benefits of barefoot running, specialists insisted. “Your body will adapt, it just takes time,” said Tim Schenone.
Sandy Nguyen is a student at Santa Clara University. She produced this piece as part of a science journalism class taught by Sally Lehrman and as part of a collaborative project with Patch.