Running is a very simple sport. Nothing fancy or expensive is needed—just a shirt, shorts and a pair of shoes to head out on the trail or road. The most important of these items are the running shoes. Runners spend countless hours discussing the "perfect running shoe"—a magical combination of support, weight and comfort that allows us to run farther, faster and injury-free.
Since the 2009 publication of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, this conversation has changed dramatically with a proliferation of those who believe that running barefoot or in minimalist shoes reduces injuries and improves performance. They usually point to myriad stories of African runners, who grew up running barefoot and went on to dominate marathon running, or they cite the Tarahumara tribe featured in Born to Run to demonstrate that mankind is naturally predisposed to run barefoot for better performance—even in endurance events like the marathon.
But concurrent with the shift to minimalist running shoes or truly "barefoot running" is the dramatic increase in serious injuries such as stress fractures, tendinitis or plantar fasciitis, to name a few. So which is it? Is barefoot running the perfect running shoe or a step on the road to serious injury and time on the couch? [Note: For purposes of this article, I will refer to "barefoot running" to include true barefoot running and wearing minimalist shoes.]
The Transition to Shod Running
For thousands of years, mankind has run barefoot or with minimalist footwear (think about Phidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens either barefoot or in simple sandals). Barefoot running must have worked because mankind has outlasted (and outrun) many of the predators who roamed the various regions of earth where man has flourished.
In the last few hundred years, many people—especially those in Western civilization—have shod their walking and exercising feet with heavy, bulky footwear to protect against the elements and provide comfort. With this transition, one argument goes, we lack the proprioception of our ancestors. Wearing shoes has withered our amazing natural leg strength and our marvelous, undervalued ability to know how to position our steps for optimal movement. As a result of our shoddy shift, many argue that our shoe-wearing bodies are more susceptible to traumatic or overuse injuries.
Consider the running shoes worn by athletes prior to the running boom of the 1970s. When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier in 1954, his shoes were comparable to some of the minimalist shoes being sold today: a flat, leather sole and scant covering, which offered little support. And Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia set an Olympic record when he won the 1960 Olympic Marathon, which he ran barefoot.
With the running boom of the late 1970s and early '80s, running shoes became bigger and heavier with more support and cushioning.