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Barefoot Benefits vs. Traditional Shoes
The Pros and Cons of Barefoot Running

Should you be wearing barefoot shoes?
Should you be wearing barefoot shoes?

Barefoot running has grown increasingly popular over the last few years, but there seems to be some confusion on its real benefits and pitfalls. To understand what may be most appropriate, you have to understand the options. There are differences in shoe types and the way your feet strike the ground. Let's start with the shoes.

Technically, barefoot running means exactly what it says. Running with no shoes or protection of any kind. Your feet are completely exposed. In the modern world that also means those bare feet are making contact with the hot pavement, running over loose gravel and slamming into broken glass and other debris. It can be dangerous and exposes your body to bacteria every time you get a puncture wound.

Minimal shoe running is when you use products like Vibram Five Fingers or their competitors. There is virtually no support of any kind, but the "shoes" cover your feet with a protective barrier. You can feel the ground much more acutely than when wearing typical footwear, but you have some protection against burning hot tar, broken bottles and other trash.

Traditional heavily reinforced shoes are what most people grew up wearing. The shoes have thick cushioned soles, often with heels that include significant amounts of shock-absorbing padding. Many also include ankle support.

Those are the simple differences between shoes, but there are four distinctly different ways to RUN in those shoes.

People who grew up with heavily reinforced shoes typically use either a heel or midfoot strike. That's where the heel or midfoot are the first point of contact with the ground as you take each step. Thick padding helps reduce the impact you feel when your feet hit the ground.

Toe and forefoot strikes are the most common gaits people assume when running in minimal shoes or barefoot. When you hit the ground with the front part of your foot, your ankle flexes and helps absorb some of the impact.

You have to separate the type of shoe, from the style of running, to decide which is more appropriate.

Barefoot Benefits

Barefoot or minimal running shoes with a toe or forefoot strike can help relieve stress on joints and lessen repetitive stress injuries. They may be especially beneficial for runners with knee and hip problems.

Without a heel lift the Achilles tendon and calf muscles tend to lengthen and over time may reduce calf pulls and Achilles tendonitis. However, if you don't train your muscles to deal with the changes in running strike, it's easy to overwork them. In the initial weeks, you may experience more calf and Achilles injuries.

Competitive runners often see an increase in speed with toe running because it's more fluid. Hitting the ground with your heel is like applying a brake with every step.

Balance and the ability to better understand the position, orientation and movement of your feet are enhanced by removing traditional shoes. In situations where balance is critical like gymnastics or tightrope walking, you don’t see people wearing shoes.

Traditional Reinforced Shoe Benefits

If you have nerve damage, diabetes or serious orthopedic issues, traditional protective shoes can provide critical support. People who need ankle support or are dealing with ankle injuries may also be better off with reinforced shoes.

Extremes in temperature require foot protection. You don't want to burn your feet when it's extremely hot or deal with frostbite from the cold.

The bottom of your feet (the plantar surface) tends to be soft and tender. Reinforced shoes keep the arch in place and the collagen bands in your feet protected. Minimal shoes allow those bands (the plantar fascia) to stretch out, sometimes causing micro-tears and a condition orignally known as plantar fasciitis and now called plantar heel pain.

There is no such thing as the "perfect" shoe or stride. You must weigh the pros and cons of all the options to make a decision that's more appropriate for you. Remember that it's always a good idea to talk to a podiatrist if you're considering a change or are currently experiencing foot-related injuries.

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Updated 6/15/2024