If you prefer reading, the entire transcript of the video is below.
The debate about whether we should be running barefoot–AKA using minimalist shoes–vs with traditional running shoes has been raging for years now. So what’s better for you? What’s the difference between running barefoot and wearing sneakers? Many of my clients ask me these questions, so I decided to do a deep-dive into the latest research regarding the pros and cons of the two. Again, barefoot doesn’t necessarily mean completely barefoot, although that’s common too, but that you’re using what’s known as a minimalist shoe. According to TheRunningClinic.com, “Minimalist shoes are footwear providing minimal interference with the natural movement of the foot due to its high flexibility, low heel to toe drop, weight and stack height, and the absence of motion control and stability devices.” I’ll go over the research with you and tell you what my verdict is at the end. If you look at the description of this video on YouTube, you’ll find links to all sources I’ll be referencing, which are all high quality.
MAIN DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RUNNING BAREFOOT VS. WITH SHOES. According to the experts, runners who wear shoes tend to land in a heel strike, which is unnatural and stressful for the body. Barefoot runners tend to lead with the balls of their feet-land on their balls or forefoot-which is a better running technique, leading to less stressful forces going through your joints. It reduces the risk of injury whereas using running shoes and heel striking can lead to runner’s knee and stress fractures. Researchers Adam Daoud and Daniel Leiberman did a study and concluded that “habitual RFS (rear-foot strike AKA heel strike) had about twice the incidence of repetitive stress injuries than individuals who habitually used FFS (fore-foot strike).”Another difference–benefit–is the fact that barefoot running corrects your stride, while a running shoe protects your foot from gravel, glass, and sticks on the ground. When running, you want to take shorter, not longer strides, which you tend to do with traditional running shoes. According to the Australian physical therapy office Pivotal Motion, “[Shorter strides] protect the body from injury as it reduces the amount of work of the knee and hips.” Running barefoot vs. using shoes also allows you to be closer to the ground, which forces your feet muscles and bones to strengthen.
COMMON OBJECTIONS AGAINST USING A MINIMALIST SHOE. Dr. Nicholas A. Campitelli, a foot and ankle surgeon and barefoot running proponent, says that one of the common objections is the person has flat feet and needs support. He writes, “During barefoot running, we avoid heel striking and land more on our forefoot or midfoot. Once the forefoot strikes the ground, pronation of the entire foot begins (not isolated pronation of the subtalar joint) and continues until the point where the heel touches the ground. Arch height becomes irrelevant as does the commonly described concept of pronation with the heel striking the ground first. With a forefoot/midfoot strike, pronation is very beneficial and helps to absorb shock.” In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you’re flatfooted while running barefoot. Another objection that often comes up is that the person is overweight. Regarding this, he has concluded that, “by forefoot striking, we decrease the force that transmits through the lower extremity, thereby reducing torque forces to the ankle, knee and hip joints.” The other sources I’m using in this video/article support this assertion. In other words, whether you’re overweight or not, landing on the fore or mid-foot is less stressful on your joints. A third common objection is that traditional running shoes with a thick sole provides better protection against glass and other things on the road. This is true and I have to agree with that.
WHAT TO CONSIDER WHEN BUYING A GOOD RUNNING SHOE. ACSM, American College of Sports Medicine, provides excellent guidance regarding how to select the best running shoe. For example, look for very low heel-to-toe drop. That means as flat a shoe as possible, AKA minimal heel cushioning. The best running shoes have 6 mm or less drop between the heel and forefoot. You also want a light running shoe with as little motion control or stability components as possible, as those factors interfere with the foot’s natural motion while running. Keep in mind that we’re only discussing correct running form here. When you’re walking, you’re heel striking, which the way it was meant to be. I encourage to read this article for more regarding how we walk. A running shoe should weigh no more than 8 ounces for women and 10 for men. Your foot shape should not be a factor when picking a running shoe. The shape of your foot or how you walk are not good indicators of what shoe to select. According to ACSM, avoid “extra arch support inserts or store based orthotics. These items are often not necessary. Orthotics should be considered temporary (<6-8 weeks) until foot strength is increased. A therapist can help you with exercises that can strengthen the foot so that you do not need arch supports on a daily basis.” Also, buy the shoe in the evening when your feet are the largest and pick a shoe with a wide toe box so your toes can move and spread. Avoid shoes that are too narrow in general.
VERDICT: Based on my research, it seems barefoot running–ie using a minimalist shoe or even running completely barefoot–is superior for the vast majority of people, including flat-footed individuals vs. using traditional running shoes. (Your transition between the two types of shoes are very important, so stay tuned for that.) Traditional running shoes don’t provide much more protection against dropped weights than minimalist ones. Regarding stepping on glass etc, the solution would be to go with a light-weight, moderately thin-soled, flexible shoe. If you have issues with your knees or hips or other injuries that may be related to wearing traditional running shoes, give barefoot running a go. Maybe it’s not for you, but I do think you should consider it before writing it off. The evidence for why it may reduce your pain is overwhelming.
TAKE YOUR TIME TRANSITIONING SHOES. I like to have a few different running shoes to alternate between, but if you’re the type that uses one pair at a time and are used to shoes with a high heel cushion, gradually transition into a more minimalist type of shoe. I myself use fairly traditional running shoes, but they are light-weight with a flexible, thin sole, so I don’t have far to go in my own transition. According to my research below, expect the transition to take a few weeks at least. Start by running barefoot on the treadmill or on a debris-free track for a while. Or wear your new minimalist shoe for only part of your regular run and increase that distance gradually. Be aware that your feet may hurt in the beginning, but that’s normal if your feet have always been in highly cushioned, heavily stabilizing runner’s shoes. Only run as much as you can handle the first time in your new shoes, then increase the distance by 10 % every week to avoid injury. This NASM blog post has an excellent step-by-step transition guide with exercises. If you used a shoe with a very high heel cushion, consider using one with less of a heel cushion–lower heel-to-toe drop–before you go fully minimalist with no heel drop. You may experience soreness in your glute and hip muscles for the first couple of weeks since you’re using your body differently in minimalist shoes. You may also experience foot blisters if you transition too fast. A great way to avoid issues is to use your minimalist shoes when you do strength-training at the gym to get used to them. Consider doing your strength-training barefoot even. I do, as much as possible. Well, I wear socks. That will prepare all of your lower extremities for your new, better running form.