Today's running shoes are categorized as motion control, stability or cushioned. None of these terms evoke the simplicity of Phidippides, Bikila, Bannister or the Tarahumara. And, according to barefoot running proponents, today's shoes reduce performance, sacrificing foot strength and spatial orientation in exchange for protection of the foot and supposed reduction of injuries.
The Case in Favor of Minimalist or Barefoot Running
Watch any barefoot runner and you'll notice her footstrike is noticeably different from those who wear traditional running shoes.
Even to the naked eye, the landing of a barefoot runner is markedly different from most shod runners. The barefoot runner tends to strike on the forefoot more, with a shorter stride length and quicker turnover. Her plantar flexion upon landing is more extended, producing less shock on the ankles, knees and hips upon landing. The overall result is a shorter time in contact with the ground.
In contrast, most shod runners land with the heel in front of the body, or a rear-foot strike, which stops the body's momentum with each landing and exerts tremendous stress on the body.
Experienced barefoot runners tend to have less heel-to-toe impact, reducing contact with the ground and, consequently, putting less impact on the body as well.
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Another factor is the speed generated by barefoot running compared to shod running. Without shoes, there is less weight for the runner to carry. The barefoot runner is not propelling himself against the weight of the shoe with each leg lift and stride and, as a result, he consumes less oxygen to move the legs (and shoes). This leaves more oxygen for the muscles and brain, and leads to more efficient forward propulsion.
Finally, barefoot running induces better proprioception in the runner's sensory factors. Leg strength increases because the runner has a better spatial orientation relative to the ground and improved sensory feedback in the foot. This, argue barefoot running proponents, reduces the number of injuries from improper landing and impact on the body.
The Case Against Minimalist or Barefoot Running
With all the perceived advantages of barefoot running, why aren't more people making the transition?
I interviewed nearly a dozen podiatrists and physical therapists who treat endurance runners as a primary part of their practice. Even those who are barefoot running proponents have witnessed a dramatic increase in barefoot-related running injuries such as metatarsal and calcaneal stress fractures, Achilles or posterior tibial tendinitis, and calf strain/tears, among other significant injuries, which can sideline a runner for a considerable length of time.
Many medical professionals argue that runners need support due to inefficiencies—either genetic or caused by years of wearing shoes in everyday activities, not just while running—that reduce lower leg strength and the natural proprioception of the foot. Orthotics placed in running shoes can correct these inefficiencies and without them, these professionals argue, runners dramatically increase their risk of injury.