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By the Skin of Our Feet: Running Barefoot

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By the Skin of Our Feet: Running Barefoot

Barefoot running is growing in popularity. Read more about its potential benefits.

To many of us, running barefoot may sound odd—let alone painful. But there’s a growing number of runners these days who say that not only does it make for a more sensory running experience, it can also be better for our bodies.

Olympic history               

Barefoot running was first showcased to the world in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, when Abebe Bikila ran barefoot to earn a gold medal. He was given a pair of running shoes for his race, but they didn’t fit properly. He decided to run the way he had trained in Ethiopia: barefoot.

The theory

Before the development of modern running shoes, somehow, we ran. What’s more, running shoes these days have a significant amount of cushion in the heel, which has also changed our natural running gait—from landing on the fore- to mid-foot in our stride to landing on heels. This adapted running form puts significant strain on other parts of the leg such as the knee as and hips.

Research based on the collision mechanics of the foot, and how it strikes the ground during running, suggests running barefoot puts less strain on our musculoskeletal frame.

Shod versus unshod

There’s been significant debate on whether it’s better to run with shoes or without. Many of those who run without shoes claim that the running shoe phenomenon is nothing but a marketing ploy to sell shoes. But according to a new paper that will appear in the new Journal of Strength And Conditioning, there may be risks to both styles of running.

While barefoot runners are able to absorb ground impact by landing on the mid or forefoot, some studies suggest that barefoot running may increase the risk of stress fractures on the front part of the foot and increase soreness in the calves. Similarly, runners who wear athletic shoes may see more injuries to areas such as the knee or hip, which is related to repeated stress from impacts on the heel.

The report makes no clear conclusions as to whether barefoot running is good or bad; instead, it suggests that whether running barefoot or not, proper training is required to risk of injury.

Transitioning from shoe to skin

In her new paper Carey Rothschild, an instructor of physical therapy at the University of Central Florida, provides a 10 to 12 week program that will help runners transition from shoes to bare feet. Running barefoot requires practising a new form for running—something that the body doesn’t adapt to naturally.

Rothschild suggests the transition should be done gradually to minimize risk of injury and that anyone considering training barefoot should get a thorough physical examination and biomechanical assessment from a physical therapist or other trained professional to identify any strength or flexibility deficits.

More on foot health

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