Running Free Barefooted

Barefoot running lessens stress where common injuries happen

(RxWiki News) First there were toe socks. Then came the toe shoes, and shoemakers have been busy designing some of their own to go with the barefoot running craze, but is it just a fad?

Barefoot running drives runners to run a little differently, which may lessen the common injuries that come with the exercise, a new study has found.

"If you switch to barefoot running, ease your way into it."

Up to 79 percent of runners can get injured during a year, according to the study.

Of those injuries, knee injuries happen the most, followed by the lower leg, foot and upper leg.

The study, led by Allison Altman, PhD, and Irene Davis, PhD, from the University of Delaware and Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, looked at how barefoot running changes runners' technique.

They drew information from other published studies to build their report.

Unlike normal tennis shoes that allow runners to hit the ground with their heels first, barefoot running "encourages a forefoot strike pattern," which means that runners stay more on the front of their feet.

The authors report that 75 percent of distance runners in modern running shoes land on their heels when running, possibly because of the cushioned heel.

Landing on the ball of the foot towards the toes, called forefoot striking, reduces force on the hip and knee joints, the authors said.

And instead the force is placed more on the calf muscles, which makes the knee- and ankle-bend happen more quickly.

This in turn makes the feet and legs churn faster, but shortens the length between the first step to and the next.

At the same time, the shorter stride length lowers stress on the body and helps protect the runners from the most common injuries.

Toe shoes help give runners the feeling of being barefoot without having the foot completely open to the ground, but the authors say it's still unclear whether they truly mimic barefoot running.

Having less footwear, like barefoot running, doesn't support the foot. Thus, it puts more demand on the muscles in the foot and the ankle.

Seventy-five percent of runners said they were interested in barefoot or minimal footwear running, but only 36 percent had actually tried it.

More research needs to be done on injuries caused by barefoot running.

Jim Crowell, a fitness trainer, co-owner of Integrated Fitness and dailyRx Contributing Expert, strongly believes in proper technique when running.

He likes the idea behind barefoot running since it promotes the middle of the foot touching the ground first during the course of the stride.

'"The dangerous piece that I've seen with barefoot running is that too many people make a switch from heeled shoes to barefoot running and don't start with short distances, " he said.

"You have to start slowly because you can injure your calves badly because your calves aren't used to the impact of a mid-foot strike."

The authors say that with gradual practice on hard surfaces, runners could train the leg to adapt.

"A concern often voiced is that running barefoot on hard surfaces will increase loading to the lower extremity and increase the chance of injuries," the authors said in their report.

"However it has been shown in numerous studies that runners will immediately reduce their leg stiffness in response to landing on harder surfaces."

More research needs to be done on how colder, subfreezing temperatures and less active runners affect barefoot running, the authors note.

The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare or any financial disclosures.

The study was published in the September/October issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports from the American College of Sports Medicine. 

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Review Date: 
October 5, 2012