Feet First: Why Barefoot Running Is Taking Off

Is running barefoot just another fad for obsessive caveman and cavewoman wannabes or is there something we can all benefit from by tossing aside our running shoes?

By Chiropractor Dr Billy Chow

Have you noticed anything different these days at your local running events? Take a quick look around when you’re next lining up at the start line. You’ll notice people with their limbs wrapped in medical-grade compression garments to help improve their performance and recovery.

Most of them will also have some form of GPS technology strapped to their wrists that would rival any NASA navigation system and I’m sure you’ll also spot a whole lot of those multi-miniature-bottled hydration systems around the waists of the weekend warrior – just in case they become dehydrated and start hitting the dreaded wall on their 5km run! I digress, what I’m observing more often at the start line is an increase in runners sans shoes.

For even the bravest of souls, the thought of having only a layer of skin between you and the pavement can make you feel a little uneasy and cautious. So how safe is running barefoot and are there any benefits?

The jury is still out on whether one should run with (shod) or without (unshod) shoes. There are arguments on both sides of the debate. However current research has given barefoot running more credibility than it’s large-cushioned heeled counterparts would like. A paper published in the international journal of sports medicine last year which tested 35 runners in bare feet, showed barefoot running was not only less stressful on joints but was also effective in absorbing energy and re-releasing it, thus allowing more efficient running.

A paper published last year showed  barefoot running was not only less stressful on joints but was also effective in absorbing energy and re-releasing it, thus allowing more efficient running.

To rub salt into the wounds of the unconverted and their belief that expensive highly cushioned runners provide more shock absorption and support, a study done in 2008, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed no scientific evidence supporting injury prevention from specially designed shoes.

In other words, spending big dollars on designer shoes, may not be worth the cash.

Seven points to  help you to decide whether or not to leave your runners in the cupboard.

  1.  1. If you’ve grown up in the western world you’ve probably spent most of your life in shoes. So going barefoot may take some getting use to. Luckily there has been an explosion of barefoot-type, minimalist running shoes available on the market. Most of them are super lightweight and have a very low heel. This is to promote the runner to land on their mid to forefoot. Landing on your heel is not only inefficient; it can also be a relatively painful experience.
  2.  Start with a few short runs on grass or on the beach without shoes. Remember to take it slowly and transition into it. You’ll probably notice that you’ll be taking shorter strides, leaning forward more and not landing on your heels. This is because without the safety of a well-padded heel, your brain will automatically default to a running style that is more effective, efficient and natural.
  3.  We weren’t born with shoes. Running barefoot and connecting with the earth is great for proprioceptive development and coordination. Going barefoot allows your brain to sense the connection of your foot with the ground without the boundaries of a rubber sole. Unshod running can also promote happiness and wellbeing.
  4. You may like hardcore racing around barefoot but remember that gravel, glass and road debris are very unforgiving. Until you have developed elephant skin soles, your best option is to run with minimalist barefoot-type shoes.
  5.  You can still have caveman credibility if you run with barefoot-type minimalist shoes. It’s often more important to focus on the effective technique of natural running than to worry about going with naked feet. Remember what I said about road debris and glass.
  6. Seek advice. There are many health professionals and sporting retail specialists that are experts in the area of natural running. They can be a valuable resource when it comes to training, technique, products and injury prevention.
  7.  Be brave and give it a go! And if you like it, remember to take your time and allow your body to adapt.

Happy running.

Dr. Billy Chow is a chiropractor and human performance mentor at the Vitality and Wellbeing Centre. His passion is to help people understand they were designed to be extraordinary and to provide easy and effective health strategies to do that. When he’s not chasing after his three kids, Billy is a long-distance runner and Crossfitter.

 Do you prefer running with or without your runners?

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Renae Leith-Manos

Editor and Founder of Bondi Beauty

Renae Leith-Manos loves fitness, new beauty products, long chats and long flights. She is at her best when traveling the world writing about luxury hotels and Michelin Star restaurants (www.renaesworld.com.au). She has had a colourful media career as a journalist inmagazines and newspapers, in Australia and Asia. She spends her time writing, cooking, consulting to new businesses, running and working out.

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