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Is Running Barefoot Really Best?

Running Barefoot

The ongoing argument of whether barefoot running is best for both health and performance in comparison to wearing shoes is about as contentious and relevant to the majority of the world as to whether The Flash is faster than Superman. That said, researchers Benno Nigg and Henrik Enders from the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Calgary have recently published in the journal Footwear Science some concerns they have over whether there is any scientific proof to back the claims made by pro-barefoot supporters.

One of the claims reportedly supporting running barefoot is the oft-quoted belief that running barefoot encourages a “forefoot” rather than a “heel” landing and thereby makes barefoot runners less prone to suffer a running-related injury.

However, the authors find that there are no actual studies indicating this and that in fact that such a generalization is improbable due to multiple factors such as the shoes used in comparison, the running surfaces encountered, the gait of running and individual preferences toward running style. Furthermore, the authors also found that running barefoot or with shoes on shows no discernible difference in muscle development of the leg.

When it comes to performance, the authors found that going sans shoes to lighten the load does not appear to result in any measurable performance advantage for runners.

But when it comes to the biggest claim/myth supporting barefoot running, Nigg and Enders point to problems with popular supporting claims that state that barefoot runners have fewer injuries than runners who wear shoes. In their study, the authors challenge this assumption by pointing out concerns that they say may be misleading:

• Citing examples of runners in countries where barefoot running is typical (e.g. Africa), as a rule having fewer injuries, could be skewed toward bias due to that barefoot runners in developing countries may be too poor to seek medical attention and this may thereby influence statistics.

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• People choosing to wear running shoes in countries where barefoot running is typical may be doing so because of previous injuries and thereby may also skew statistical analysis comparing bare feet to shod feet.

• Runners wearing shoes may cover more distance and thereby have a higher incidence of injury.

• It is difficult to determine the surfaces on which people run or walk in countries where barefoot running is the norm.

• So-called “reports and observations” of running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations are not factually supported by scientific studies.

The conclusion that the authors came to is that the question posed (and argued) of “Which is better?” may be the asking of the wrong question. Rather, that actual performance and health concerning shoes or no-shoes is more due to other factors such as individual preferences and running styles independent of whether someone runs barefoot or with shoes. The authors feel that their results suggest that one should run in any way that feels comfortable―whether this is with shoes or barefoot. And, that one probably should not run in a situation that is not comfortable for them.

Image Source: Courtesy of PhotoBucket

Reference: “Barefoot running―some critical considerations” Footwear Science 2013; 5 (1): 1 DOI: 10.1080/19424280.2013.766649; Benno Nigg and Hendrik Endera.