To bare or to wear

A lot has already been written about the virtues of barefoot running and with each passing day, more are being added. The sales of minimalist running shoes world over, had increased by more than 283% in the first half of 2011, the New York Times has reported. In the month of December 2011 alone, sales grew by 658%, a report by Leisure Trends Group, a speciality retail market intelligence provider.

I see more and more people taking to barefoot running or with minimalist footwear with each passing race these days. In absolute numbers though, they are yet negligible compared to the number of people who run with shoes on.

Having taken to long distance running since mid 2008, I have always been running with my shoes on. But I have always been curious about barefoot running (or with minimalist shoes) and have been reading a lot about it with keen interest. I have attempted barefoot running a few times, albeit only for short distances. As a sprinter during my school days, I had run with racing flats and spikes (both are minimalist shoes).

Bengaluru has become a hotspot for running. Leading former champions such as Reeth Abraham (retired 1992) reside in the city. Reeth is still active in running and takes part in masters events. Pic: Deepthi M S

Why are more and more people taking to barefoot (or minimalist) running these days? If barefoot running was so much better, why didn’t we see barefoot running in any of the world class events, in all these years?

The first African to win a Gold Medal in Marathon in Olympics (Rome 1960) – Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian, won it running barefoot. Yet in 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Abebe Bikila chose to run with shoes. Of course, he still won the gold, but why did Bikila choose to run with shoes on?

1970s saw Nike, Adidas and others spawning a whole new industry and all the elite runners took to running with one of these shoes. Surely it was not because of just marketing gimmicks nor was it just because Nike, Adidas,et al were heavily sponsoring those athletes. Nike & Adidas did a lot of research with top athletes for the right kind of shoes to help them win. Why did all the barefoot (or with minimalist shoes) runners embrace the cushioned shoes then?

If barefoot running is so beneficial, why aren’t the elite runners switching over to barefoot/minimalist shoes now?

Graphic source: icanhasscience.com

 Running form

As human beings, we walk with heel strike. It goes from heel strike to forefoot strike as we increase the cadence by jogging, running and finally sprinting. All sprinters have forefoot strike. Incidentally, the shoes that sprinters wear are all minimalist shoes with spikes in it to aid better grip and faster running.

All athletes who run 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m, can be observed to have a distinct forefoot strike running form. The only difference being that athletes who run 800m wear spikes that offer sufficient cushion for the heel and mid foot.

From 1500m on, athletes have a distinct midfoot strike or heel strike with immediate roll over. This is because one cannot run longer distances with forefoot strike. Their shoes/spikes have sole cushioning to lessen the impact and protect the heel from injury.

Barefoot running

Anyone starting to run barefoot will naturally end up having a forefoot strike. This means the strides will be shorter and hence increased cadence. The foot is in contact with the ground for lesser duration. Since the strides are short, the foot strikes close to the body’s center of gravity. The entire body weight is not shifted to the landing foot, hence there is less stress on the knees.

However, it is not possible to run for long distances with forefoot strike. Forefoot strike puts a lot of stress on the ankles. The barefoot runners who run longer distances will eventually switchover to a midfoot strike.

Running with shoes

Why do we need shoes to run? As the distance increases and the foot starts pounding constantly, it is a strain on the heel, ankle and knees. The cushioning reduces the impact.

So why do runners using shoes get injured?

The heel cushion is also driving runners to develop incorrect running forms, which leads to running injuries. An example that illustrates this point is the way one runs downhill with shoes and without shoes. A runner with shoes on will invariably land on the heel, while a barefoot runner will land on the forefoot or mid foot while running downhill.

The correct running form is that the foot should hit the ground in line with the knees. The landing should be on mid foot or on heel with immediate rollover. The foot strike is either in line with the torso or slightly in front of the torso. The foot strike is also slightly in front of the body’s center of gravity. This means taking shorter steps and increased cadence.

If the foot is pointing up at the time of landing, it is obvious that the runner is landing on the heel. This is likely if the runner’s foot is striking the ground well in front of the knee. This also means that the foot is in contact with the ground for a longer time. The body weight tends to shift on to the landing foot leading to a lot of stress on the knees, ankles and heels with constant pounding. This would surely lead to injuries. This can be easily corrected by taking shorter steps. For some runners, one foot might be landing correctly, while the other foot may land in front of the knee.

Title: US Marathon champion Ryan Hall, 30, in slow motion. Credit: YouTube user michaeldwilson

I have observed videos of elite marathon runners. All of them land on their heel and immediately roll over or land on their midfoot. The entire body weight never shifts to the landing foot. For instance, Haile Gebrselassie lands on heel and immediately rolls over, while Ryan Hall lands on mid foot.

I also have been observing some of our very own seasoned and fast marathoners during the runs organized by “Runners for Life” and in the races that I have been participating. All the good runners have a similar running form as described above. Even the runners who take long steps, land their foot in line with their knee and rollover quickly without transferring the body weight on the landing foot. I have also seen some runners who are on the heavier side, having mid foot landing.

BAREFOOT/MINIMALIST OR CUSHIONED SHOES

First of all, it is good to do a Gait Analysis to understand one’s running form. Gait Analysis is the video based analysis of one’s body mechanics while running. Irrespective of whether one wants to run barefoot or with shoes on, the running form remains the key to avoid injuries.

For those who had injuries, shifting to barefoot running has helped in eliminating injuries. Runners who have switched over to barefoot running(or minimalist shoes) just swear by it. Switching over to Barefoot running takes time. One has to do it gradually by strengthening the calf muscles and allowing the body to get used to the rigours of barefoot running over a period of time.

For those who are running with shoes on, if they do not have injuries, chances are they would have a good running form. Let me also hasten to add that most runners with shoes on, would have the correct running form. Injuries can happen even to the seasoned runners due to various factors.

Common causes being

  • Choosing the wrong shoes (especially for beginners)
  • Running with worn out shoes
  • Muscles being tight leading to injuries
  • Overtraining
  • Not enough strength training.
  • Ageing

So which is better?

While barefoot running naturally enables forefoot or midfoot strike, there is still not enough empirical data to suggest the kind of injuries that can occur due to continuous barefoot running. It is still early days and only time will tell. A couple of injuries associated with barefoot running are:

  • Top of the foot injury. This affects the forefeet.
  • Heel injury. This has also been referred to as Faux Fasciitis (Yes, this is not Plantar Fasciitis)

To assume that barefoot running will be injury free is being very naïve. For the moment though, enjoy the barefoot runs, if that’s what works for you.

If barefoot running is natural for human beings, running on hard surfaces such as roads and pavements is definitely not natural and is fraught with danger. Wearing a shoe gives the cushion to minimise the impact.

It is also a fact that wearing sufficiently cushioned shoes improves the marathon running performance (read speed). This is certainly true for all the elite athletes. That is the reason all elite marathoners have been running with shoes on, for so many years now. It is for the same reason that Abebe Bikila ran with shoes on, in 1964 Olympics. As a matter of fact, Abebe Bikila suffered a heel injury while training barefoot and could not qualify for 1968 Olympics.

Barefoot running/ minimalist shoes are being used more and more by the recreational runners and not by competitive runners, as on date. Competitive runners may still use racing flats for sprints, interval runs while training.

Barefoot or shod, ultimately what is important for all runners is to stay injury free and enjoy the runs. To quote the Zen aphorism “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

For me personally, this is akin to sleeping on the floor vs sleeping on a bed. They say sleeping on the floor is the natural way, it is the bed that can cause back aches! As of now, I prefer the comfort of the bed. But then, this is another topic altogether.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Adam,

    I agree with you that FFS/MFS is just a strike and not a total step.

    While running barefoot, one lands on the ball of the feet and allows the heel to touch. I have categorised that as MFS. To me FFS is one in which the heel does not touch, like how the sprinters run. Typically when people start running barefoot for the first time, they try running on their forefoot(their heel not touching the ground) before starting to learn to run on the ball of their feet.

  2. “However, it is not possible to run for long distances with forefoot strike. Forefoot strike puts a lot of stress on the ankles. The barefoot runners who run longer distances will eventually switchover to a midfoot strike.”

    I think you misunderstand the forefoot and midfoot strike. It’s a strike, it’s not the total step. I’ve found that my gait when running barefoot style is a forefoot strike that rolls down to a full foot plant. My foot being the damper that allows my heal to make contact at the end of the strike. This is how ultra-marathon runners run without padded shoes.

    Oh and it’s no surprise that competative runners still use padded trainers – they already have too much invested in that type of running to change.

    Good article aside from those two points though.

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