Barefoot running in 2016: is that still a thing?

Barefoot running beach sand

Like many people I have been intrigued by barefoot and minimalist running ever since I read Christopher McDougall’s worldwide blockbuster Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. The case was perfect: running with little to no protection forced us to pay attention to our body by listening to obvious pain signals that are normally suppressed by cushioned shoes. As a result while research shows that up to 80% of runners get injured at least once a year, with barefoot running one would constantly strive for the best possible running form, reducing greatly the risk of injuries.

McDougall built his argumentation on Lieberman’s evolution theory that humans are born to run. While many podiatrists claim that the human foot is unfinished work and needs support, Christopher McDougall argues instead that it has been refined over millions of years to reach near perfection and should not be corrected in any way.

Christopher McDougall’s plea was logical and very well made. It reached the masses because it was part of a beautiful and poetic ode to running centred around the Tarahumara (or Rarámuri), a lost tribe of Native american people living in the Sierra Madre in Mexico famous for running up to 320 km in one single session; as well as charismatic characters like Barefoot Ted, Caballo Blanco and Jenn Shelton. There are many great books about running but Born to Run was the first to become a universal anthem spreading the love of running beyond the traditional athletic circles.

The benefits of barefoot running have yet to be backed by scientific research

What has become of barefoot and minimalist running since 2009 and the publication of Born to Run? First of all, it’s important to point out that, although McDougall’s thesis makes a whole lot of sense, it has yet to be supported by empirical data. Despite an array of presumptions to date there’s no hard evidence that barefoot running can actually reduce running injuries.

Vibram, the company that makes the very iconic FiveFingers shoe and was brought to fame by Born to Run and Barefoot Ted, would know something about it. They faced a class action lawsuit and ultimately settled in 2014. Vibram was accused of deceiving consumers by advertising that the footwear could reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles without any scientific proof.

At the beginning of 2016 the British Journal of Sports Medicine published the results of the first-ever empirical study on barefoot running. In this research Allison Altman and Irene Davis compare the injury rate sustained between barefoot runners and runners with shoes over the course of a year. There were no statistically significant difference in number of injuries per 1,000 kilometres between the two groups. The paper emphasizes “fewer overall injuries” for barefoot runners but that’s only because they ran less (24km/week vs. 41km/week for the shoe-wearing runners).

Declining trend

As the Google Trends graph above shows, the interest for barefoot and minimal running decreased quite sharply in the last years. On Reddit the subreddit Barefoot & Minimalist Running has 11,723 subscribers (18/12/2016), which is just a bit more than 5% of the Running subreddit.

Should you give barefoot/minimalist running a try?

As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If you are successfully running as much as you want injury-free with your current shoes, cushioned or not, then there’s no reason to change it. However, if you have been plagued with nagging injuries and don’t seem to catch a break like I have, then barefoot running may be a path to explore.

Personally, I have been struggling with insertional achilles for quite a while (as briefly mentioned in my Rotterdam Marathon story). The eccentric heel drops certainly helped but didn’t fully cure it. However, I did notice an improvement when switching from my fairly cushioned Nike Pegasus 32 to Nike Free 5.0 that have a lower heel to toe drop and the beginning of a minimalist feel.

I’m ready to take a leap of faith! As I progressively recover from my v-tach ablation and resume running I will give a try to minimalist running. Since I’m starting (almost) from scratch after months without running I feel it’s a good occasion to take it slow and build a strong foundation, starting with my feet. I will begin training with Merrell Vapor Glove 2 and later on, hopefully, transition to barefoot. My goal is to be able to run 30km/week without any injury by the end of 2017. Stay tuned on Amsterdam Trilogy for updates on my progress!

What are your thoughts on barefoot and minimalist running? I would love to hear them in the comments.

Photo credit: BMcIvr

1 Comment

  • I personally think it’s better than running with cushioned shoes. The moment I switched from my fairly minimal nike flyknit rns to cushioned shoes, i developed pains in my soles. We have yet to see if it’s unrelated to the cushioned soles but seems that after going back to the minimal nikes, i have less issues.

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