Barefoot running has seen a surge in interest and popularity in recent years, whether runners are actually barefoot, or are wearing minimalist shoes that mimic the barefoot experience, offering little protection from hard and rough surfaces.
As many running shoes have become more complicated, padded, and modified, runners are often looking to dial it back and return to a style of running that better replicates how human feet evolved for running.
But are barefoot running shoes really better? It turns out the answer is complicated.
No Clear Winner on Injury Reduction
While many barefoot and minimalist shoe running proponents look to a Harvard study (published in a science journal in 2004) for evidence that barefoot runners experience fewer injuries, the study they cite actually says nothing of the sort. Rather, the study demonstrated that barefoot runners did not experience any more injuries than shod runners.
When it comes to reducing foot and leg injuries, no studies have actually shown that one or the other is better. In fact, there are so many factors involved that it would be extremely difficult to determine a causative relationship.
Foot Strike More Important Factor Than Shoes
One of those factors, and perhaps the most important one, is foot strike. If you’re a runner, you probably know the difference between forefoot and heel striking. If not, it’s pretty self explanatory: your strike depends on what part of your foot hits the ground first with each stride.
One of the main causes of repetitive strain injuries in running is heel striking, or when the heel of your foot hits the ground first when you run.
This is because your heel essentially stops moving, and all of the energy of your forward momentum gets directed back into your foot and leg. While many barefoot enthusiasts point to runners in indigenous cultures who run barefoot with a forefoot strike, there have actually been no studies that show that running in barefoot shoes will automatically turn you into a forefoot striker.
Barefoot Running Success Depends on You, Not Your Shoes
In the end, it seems like barefoot running, whether in minimalist shoes or not, can help to improve balance and form, which might reduce injuries. But the outcome of your barefoot running experience depends more on you, your personal fitness levels, and what you’re willing to invest – not what you have or don’t have on your feet.
Barefoot running requires a significant commitment to strengthening the ankles and muscles of the feet, which are often fairly weak in runners who wear contemporary running shoes. You’ll probably also want to commit to switching from a heel to a forefoot strike, which takes time and practice.
Also, it depends on your feet. Some people can easily transition to minimalist shoes or barefoot running and barely notice; others have to ease into it and spend a large amount of time toughening their feet up, before they can successfully run even a few miles in barefoot shoes.
Have you tried running barefoot or in minimalist shoes? What was your experience like? Share it with us in the comments section!