Is Barefoot Running Really Better?
With the Olympics heating up and track and field events set to start next week, it’s an appropriate time to consider the most controversial debate in the running community: Should we lace up a pair of running shoes when we go for a jog, or simply venture out barefoot?
Over the past few years, barefoot running has gone from an oddball pastime to a legitimate athletic movement, and the small number of actual barefoot runners is joined by a much larger number who’ve adopted minimalist running shoes.
Proponents of barefoot running argue that our bodies evolved for shoeless locomotion. Covering up one of our most sensitive, flexible parts distorts our natural stride and prevents foot muscle development. Instead of striding gracefully and landing on the mid or forefoot, running shoes lead us to carelessly land on a heavily cushioned heel. Decades of athletic footwear development have led to bigger, more protective shoes—which have only weakened our feet and made us unable to run the way we are naturally meant to.
The opposing camp—which, after all, still includes the vast majority of runners—points to a number of advantages in wearing shoes. Modern advances in footwear can prevent flawed running tendencies such as overpronation (when a flat-footed runner’s ankle rolls inward with each stride) that lead to injuries like shin splints. If you’ve run with shoes your whole life, going barefoot requires dramatically altering your stride, which often results in other injuries. And, on the most fundamental level, shoes protect us from broken glass, nails, and other dangerous debris often found on city streets and sidewalks.
Now, science weighs in—and the results are decidedly mixed. An analysis of studies University of Central Florida professor Carey Rothschild, published last week in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, examines the body of research that has been conducted on barefoot running.