If you haven’t heard about it, barefoot running is one of the most popular and controversial topics in the exercise world right now. Books like Born to Run by Christopher McDougall have inspired many to hit the pavement sans shoes for their runs. Although barefoot running is as old as humankind, I feel it has picked up renewed interest as a result of people looking to get back to nature to answer our problems. I think of it as part of the “green” movement that is inspiring people around the world.
Although I don’t use running as a regular workout, I have always been a proponent of barefoot or minimalist shoes for weight training. As a competitive martial artist, I have always worked out barefoot in my martial arts classes. In fact, it’s something that we take for granted and it’s nice to be reminded of the benefits of barefoot training.
Is There Science Behind Barefoot Running ?
When you exercise, your brain gets feedback from your foot about the effects of gravity and ground reaction forces. Wearing a conventional exercise shoes with excessive padding actually deadens the communication between your brain and the information coming to it through your feet. This is a well-known fact and is part of the reason why there are different shoes for different sports.
With running, the modern “wisdom” is that having a heavily padded sole on your running shoe will lessen the force of impact with every step. Makes sense, right? However, the real answer appears to be more counter-intuitive. There is research showing that wearing heavily padded running shoes throws off your running mechanics in such a way that you actually get MORE force going through your joints than less.
Here is an excellent video by Professor Daniel Lieberman who teaches human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. Professor Lieberman goes into the evolutionary theory behind barefoot running and the results of his research showing the effects of different running styles on your joints. Don’t worry, it’s light on the science…check it out:
As you saw in the visual displays of the impact force between the two different running styles, the way you run makes a big difference. Heel-striking and fore-foot striking have dramatically different effects on the force your body has to absorb during every step.
The Best of Both Worlds
So now that you know the benefits of barefoot running, should you ditch your shoes and run wild, shoeless, and free next time you hit the pavement for a workout? You can, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. If you’re interested in barefoot running, I would start with walking first and gradually work your way to running.
This also is my recommendation for starting weight training barefoot as well. You can hurt yourself if you start doing squats and lunges barefoot without working up to it first; start with lighter weight and slower movements. The muscles of your toes and feet will have to work harder than ever before while performing exercises barefoot.
Of course, you can also have the best of both worlds. Shoe companies, in their capitalist efforts to meet consumer demand and to keep customers buying, have come out with some awesome shoes using “barefoot technology.” Shoes like the Newton, Nike Free, Vibram Five Fingers, and Terra Plana Evo give you a choice of stylish foot-wear that actually allows your foot to work naturally.
I just purchased a pair of Nike Fee TR trainer shoes. My first impression of the Nike Free TR trainers is positive so far, but keep on the lookout for a full product review after I have had a chance to break them in…so keep on the lookout for that!