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Popular "Barefoot" Running Shoes May Cause Injury

Armen Hareyan's picture
Barefoot style running shoe

Popular barefoot-style shoes are breaking footwear merchandising records, but runners may experience new types of injuries with these minimalist running shoes, according to a September 2011 study by the American Council on Exercise. Runners must change their running style to benefit from barefoot-style shoes or they will increase the risk of certain overuse injuries.

Modern running shoes provide stability to the middle of the foot, which typically assists in correcting overpronation. These running shoes also have a thick sole, which encourages many runners to run in a heel-strike gait rather than landing on the balls of their feet. Experienced runners develop the habit of striking with their heels first with each running step they take. Many runners experience multiple injuries throughout their running careers, and typically these injuries impact their ankles, shins and knees.

When runners run barefoot they tend to land on the balls of their feet, but barefoot runners also risk trauma from striking the hard ground, rocks, glass and thorns. Thin-soled minimalist shoes with separated toes provide some protection from the elements while keeping the foot in a natural position. Unfortunately, if runners select minimalist shoes in an effort to prevent injuries, they may actually increase their risk of injury. Here is a good guide on how to choose barefoot running shoes from RunnerLight.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, evaluated female runners and how they altered their foot-strike patterns wearing neutral running shoes, Vibram FiveFingers minimalist shoes and barefoot. Using 3-D motion analysis, researchers observed how the runners landed in traditional running shoes and compared how they adapted to running with a change in footwear.

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The runners typically landed heel first in traditional running shoes. Half of the subjects altered their stride to land on the balls of their feet when they changed to barefoot running or used the Vibram FiveFingers. The other half continued to land on their heels. Researcher John Pocari, PhD., observes that heel-strike running in minimalist shoes is worse for runners than heel-strike running in traditional shoes due to the lack of cushioning.

The study found that running in minimalist shoes may potentially reduce the risk of injuries, but only for runners who are able to adapt their running styles when they switch shoes. However, when a runner changes from a heel-strike pattern to landing on the balls of their feet, he should be prepared to experience new stresses on his calves and shins.

The researchers advise careful consideration before changing to a minimalist shoe. Runners should consider ditching their traditional shoes only if they already struggle with chronic injury. Dr. Pocari notes that runners who change to minimalist shoes require specific instruction in changing their gaits to prevent further injury. Runners should start slow, and wear their minimalist shoes for short periods of time before working up to longer runs.

Source: American Council on Exercise; "Like Barefoot, Only Better?"; September 2011

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

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The problem with the VFFs is that there's enough padding under the heel and ball of the foot that you don't get the feedback that would lead you to transition to barefoot form. I use running sandals -- way more barefoot feel than VFFs. If you land on your heel, you KNOW it... and STOP doing that ;-)
You know - I think running causes injury - period. I've seen so many health problems among runners, but I know that opens a can of worms for those who love the sport.
May be running needs to be done in moderation.