You may have seen people out on the track or trails wearing shoes that look like gloves. These funny looking shoes are trendy in running circles. With all the hype about barefoot running and minimalist shoes, you may be considering a switch from your sneakers. There are plenty of factors to consider when choosing between barefoot running and running in athletic shoes.
Some people argue against the need for running shoes because people walked the earth barefoot for many generations. They argue that shoes aren’t really necessary, but if you’ve ever stepped on a piece of broken grass or a sticky piece of trash, you know that our shoes protect us from a variety of pollutants that our hunter-gatherer forerunners didn’t have to deal with. That’s where the minimalist shoe comes into the picture. Barefoot-inspired footwear features thin soles and flexible materials. Some look like traditional shoes such as moccasins or huaraches while more modern styles mimic the look of a bare foot. Minimalist shoes allow you to run almost barefoot while still offering a protective buffer between your skin and the pavement.
Gait—Do Barefoot Runners Run Differently?
Another argument in favor of barefoot running is the assertion that running in athletic shoes causes the runner to strike heel-first rather than more forward toward the ball of the foot. Some believe that a gait that strikes ball-first is more natural and low-impact, leading to less wear on the body and helping to prevent stress-related injuries. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that most barefoot runners naturally favor a gait that strikes heel first, contrary to the prevailing argument about minimalist running. The results suggest that a runner’s gait has more to do with an individual’s natural preferences than with the shoes he or she wears. As the researcher Kevin Hatala told The Washington Post, “[the study] directly shows that there is not one way to run barefoot.”
Finally, some fans of barefoot running argue that it promotes healthier feet and reduces the risk of chronic injuries because it builds up the muscles of the feet more than wearing shoes does. As noted in The New York Times, researchers at Brigham Young University found that if foot muscles become more taut and firm, the arch would grow higher as a consequence. High arches come with their own problems, including chronic pain or possible long-term damage. Further, as the study noted above showed, the argument that barefoot running offers a lower-impact gait may not be true.
So, although it’s a big trend, don’t feel pressured to hang up your usual running shoes just yet. If you’re interested in switching to barefoot running or minimalist running shoes, make sure you do so gradually so your feet have time to build up the muscles and calluses needed. Making the transition too quickly can lead to pulled muscles, stress fractures, or Achilles tendinitis. In the meantime, invest in a good pair of running shoes to keep your feet, ankles, and knees supported and protected from impact and the pavement.