Happy Feet? Physical therapy professor explains the biomechanics of barefoot running
If you've browsed athletic wear recently, you've probably seen the “funny looking” shoes, known in the running world as barefoot shoes. They represent a trend that is gaining traction – a minimalist style of running. From Olympic track and field stars to weekend warrior athletes, there is strong debate on the topic of switching from traditional running shoes to a lighter shoe with less padding, or no shoe at all. Dr. Kevin Ford, who joined HPU this summer as the biomechanics laboratory director and associate professor of physical therapy, has performed extensive research on running biomechanics and knows the pros and cons of this minimalist movement.

Q. What sparked the surge of interest in barefoot running?

A. A book by Christopher McDougall titled “Born to Run” has helped popularize a minimalist movement. McDougall describes the biomechanical differences in this running style and uses a group of Native American people, the Tarahumara, who use basic style sandals, as an example. Anthropologists would also suggest that we have evolved to wearing shoes and that barefoot is a more natural style of running that has always existed.

Q. How does this style alter the way we run?

A. The changes biomechanically that occur in barefoot running are a shorter stride and landing on the balls of your feet compared to your heels. Several biomechanical researchers have suggested that this style of running may reduce stress-related injuries. While it is becoming popular, we lack well designed scientific studies to justify that running barefoot will prevent injuries. It may simply change the type of injuries that runners have. Up to 50 percent of runners will have an injury in any given year. Therefore, as a scientific community, we are constantly trying to determine what the risk factors are and how to prevent injuries in this population.

Q. What's the controversy between these distinctive styles?

A. This is a hotly debated topic in both the scientific and running communities. Opponents of barefoot running suggest that it does not reduce the overall number of injuries, just the type. They argue that increased forefoot injuries and skin breakdown will occur in barefoot runners.

To date, there is no scientific evidence that show minimalist running shoes or barefoot running reduces injuries. But the supporters of barefoot running suggest that the shorter strides reduce impact forces that will, in turn, reduce overuse running injuries. An additional benefit may also be found in the small intrinsic foot musculature that may be strengthened when training without shoes.

Q. Who should try barefoot running, and what steps should they take to prepare?

A. I strongly advocate a well-balanced core and lower extremity strengthening program with any runner. If you are going to try running barefoot or in a minimalist shoe, then you should train smart. Start off slow and gradually add more running time and distance that you perform barefoot or in a minimalist shoe. In other words, don't start off running the same distance barefoot that you are used to running in shoes. Kinematic (movement) changes in your running form are suggested for barefoot running. These are shorter stride distance with quicker stride rate and initial contact with the ground with the balls of your feet instead of your heels. If you are not getting these kinematic changes, you may not be adapting well to barefoot running. Bottom line – if you have never had problems with running, then why change?