Barefoot Running Debunked

Cinnamon Janzer
by Cinnamon Janzer
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Barefoot Running Debunked

Recently, I was on a run around one of the many beautiful lakes in Minneapolis during a surprising warm spell (read: just breaking 40°F) and came across something shocking. Another runner was making his way around the lake barefoot. Encountering barefoot runners has been nothing new in the last few years, but I was surprised to see someone so dedicated to the philosophy that he’d be out barefoot in temperatures that, while unseasonably warm for Minnesota in February, were still chilly.

I had heard anecdotes about the merits of barefoot running, but after witnessing this runner’s dedication, anecdotal evidence would no longer suffice. I dove into the barefoot running phenomenon headfirst and was surprised by my findings.

MYTH #1: BAREFOOT RUNNING IS NEW

It turns out that barefoot running is a phenomenon that has been on the scene for awhile — it’s just in recent years that it’s become popular. Barefoot running “has always been around, it just became trendy with the publication of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall,” explains Matt Fitzgerald, a running coach, avid marathoner and author of several books on running and training. “The book made it far more popular than it has ever been.”

MYTH #2: BAREFOOT RUNNING REDUCES INJURY

Another reason why barefoot running has become more common is because of the beliefs in injury reduction that surround it. According to a 2011 study, “advocates of barefoot running believe that a more primitive style of running may result in fewer running-related injuries and even possibly improve performance.” There’s even a dedicated slice of research on barefoot running specifically regarding the differences in foot strikes conducted by Harvard’s Skeletal Biology Lab.

Despite the amount of research out there, the connection between running and injury reduction is not yet concretely proven. Even the researchers at the Harvard Lab — whose work can certainly be considered to lean toward the potential benefits of barefoot running — clearly state that their “hypothesis remains to be tested” and that they “present no data on how people should run, whether shoes cause some injuries or whether barefoot running causes other kinds of injuries.”

As confounding as that is for someone trying to figure out what’s really going on with the running-sans-shoes phenomenon, this is essentially the state of evidence when it comes to barefoot running and injury reduction. A 2012 study by Irene Davis, PhD, and Allison R. Altman, PhD, that set out to “review the current state of the evidence regarding differences in mechanics between shod and barefoot running and how this might be related to injury” came to the same conclusion: “At this moment, there is significantly more that we do not know about barefoot running than what we do know… There are many questions yet to be answered before medical professionals can make informed decisions about what to recommend to their running patients.” Davis and Altman end by stating that “the injury risk associated with barefoot running is largely unknown.”

So, what’s a runner to do? Due to the lack of concrete evidence to support barefoot running, Fitzgerald thinks that we should be having a different conversation altogether. “The debate is set up in terms of black and white, all or nothing — and that breaks down pretty quickly. Right now, shoes are a fact of life. Cutting out shoes altogether isn’t the way to go, so I think the questions we should be asking instead are ‘What kind of shoe is best?’ and ‘How much shoe is enough?’ ” In Fitzgerald’s view, this is a more sensible debate because it’s pragmatic rather than ideological.

READ MORE > HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT SHOE FOR EVERY SURFACE

When it comes to choosing the right shoe, Fitzgerald says comfort is key. “I’m a big believer in the comfort factor,” he says. “There’s research by Bruno Nigg that purports that comfort isn’t just about comfort, but that it’s useful information that tells you that the shoe is allowing you to run more naturally and efficiently. The main thing is that it’s not the same for every runner, and it’s a process of trial and error for everyone.”


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About the Author

Cinnamon Janzer
Cinnamon Janzer

Cinnamon hails from the prairie lands of North Dakota, has been told that she thinks too much, and enjoys using oxford commas. She’s a writer and editor who is fascinated by people and culture and can’t seem to stop traveling. Her work has been featured in FastCo.ExistGOOD.is, Brit+Co, Developing Citizen Designers, and more and has been cited in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. She currently splits her time between Brooklyn, Latin America, and Minneapolis with her dog, Gus, at her side. When she’s not typing away, she’s continuously endeavoring to improve her surfing and perfect her Spanish. You can read more about her at www.cinnamon-janzer.com.

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