Going Barefoot Vs. Running Shoes: The Tradeoffs

One of the big ongoing debates in the running world is centered around whether or not barefoot running is truly better for you because it is “more natural”. We’d like to weigh in on this debate. It’s important for us to note that yes, we are a running store that sells running shoes, so it’s pretty clear on which side our beliefs are going to fall. However, we do have some good insight because we interact with dozens of runners everyday. We see the issues people deal with on a regular basis, including those that have taken the barefoot running path (this includes 5 Fingers and other Vibram-type “shoes”). With this segment of barefoot runners, we see some common themes emerge. The most prominent theme is that they’re injured and need help. They have Achilles tendonitis, a stress fracture in their foot, a strained calf, or they simply stepped on a sharp rock and got cut up. To be fair, there is a place for barefoot running, and we will provide some tips for how to do it correctly at the end of this article. However, from our perspective (based on interacting with real runners everyday), barefoot running has caused more havoc and done more harm than good.

The logic of barefoot running is pretty straightforward. Our ancestors ran barefoot. Humans evolved running barefoot. Running barefoot forces you onto your forefoot and toes, considerably reducing the shock you put onto your body each time you take a stride. Traditional running shoes tend to promote a heel strike, which is a more shock-inducing way to land (although the density of the midsole of the shoe absorbs a lot of this stress). On the flip side, barefoot running doesn’t protect your feet from the elements. And the fact is, we live in a world of roads and rocky trails. Unless you can do all your barefoot running on an ideal packed dirt path or grass, the risk of injury is just too high. Our ancestors weren’t going on 5 mile runs on asphalt roads. And neither should you, at least not barefoot! If you’re going to be training on an artificial asphalt surface or treadmill, wouldn’t it make sense that you need some sort of artificial protection (shoes) to safegaurd you from these surfaces?

Running shoes were invented to solve a problem: to protect your feet and absorb the shock of running. And by and large, they work. Almost all professional runners wear traditional running shoes. These are the people that are striving to get the most out of their performance. If they could do this more effectively barefoot, they would. There is over 100 years of science and R&D that go into today’s running shoes. Nowadays, there are many different types of shoes designed to be custom-fit to your specific gait pattern. We’ve seen a simple but correct running shoe correct chronic injuries for some of our customers. As for the folks that believe barefoot running is more natural, consider this: Almost all of us have worn shoes our whole lives. We’ve grown, developed, and strengthened our bio-mechanics and movement patterns while in shoes. To then go barefoot is a big change that is actually UNnatural based on what what we’re used to. This is another reason injuries are so prevalent with barefoot runners.

Having said all this, there is a right and wrong way to go barefoot. Unfortunately, too many people take the wrong way, which is just to start running barefoot. A transition period is essential to effectively switch to barefoot running. Without this period, injuries are almost guaranteed, as shown in this study that neglected the transition phase. During this period, you should spend a few months training in a “minimal” shoe, or one with a low heel-to-toe drop. You should build up mileage slowly in this shoe and become comfortable with it over a period of a few months. If all goes well, then it is okay to go barefoot. Here, you’ll want to avoid hard surfaces at all costs. Like the period beforehand, build up very, very slowly. We can’t stress this enough. Most running injuries, and we’re talking any injury not just barefoot-related, come because people want to build too quickly. Your body simply can’t handle the stress, and you begin to break down and ultimately get hurt. It should be a slow, gradual and incremental process. In reality, this doesn’t happen often. Runners put down the popular book Born to Run in their excited state and head out the door to run barefoot all over town. That’s a recipe for disaster!

All things considered, we really recommend that you stick to a traditional running shoe. You can cover all sorts of terrain, the risk of injury is less, and chances are you’re already accustomed to wearing a shoe! Furthermore, the technology out there is pretty impressive. There’s a ton of options and you’re more than likely to find one that is designed to work with your specific stride. If you feel the need to go barefoot, just do it slowly and include a transitional phase. Otherwise, in our opinion, it’s not worth the risk.

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