Two years ago, when Tamara Gerken was near the end of a six-mile run, she felt a strong burning sensation in her left toes. The pain, caused by a nerve condition called Morton’s neuroma, was so intense that the Atlanta-area resident sat down, yanked off her running shoes, stuffed them into her jogging stroller and ran the last mile back to her car barefoot. But a funny thing happened on the way: Her foot started to feel fine. “I experienced a sudden sense of freedom,” remembers Gerken, who went on to co-found the Barefoot Runners Society (barefootrunners.org), a national network of runners who eschew traditional footwear.
That organization is part of a fast-growing movement that includes fans of Christopher McDougall’s 2009 best seller Born to Run. The stars of the book are the Tarahumara, an indigenous Mexican tribe of runners who race hundreds of miles in flimsy homemade sandals yet rarely suffer injuries. Citing scientific and anecdotal evidence, McDougall argues that the cushioned shoes favored by modern runners weaken foot muscles and encourage an “unnatural” heel-to-toe stride that, he claims, increases their risk of injury.
Even before the book came out, some shoe manufacturers were minimizing or eliminating the dense cushioning and stability devices of traditional running shoes so people could get the barefoot experience without tearing up their feet. Two early examples included the glovelike Vibram FiveFingers (shown at above) and the lightweight, hyperflexible Nike Free shoes. This minimalist-shoe trend—call it “barefoot” running—is now in full swing, and there’s a bumper crop of new lines, including Saucony’s Kinvara, Merrell’s Barefoot Collection and New Balance’s NB Minimus. The idea is appealing, especially for those looking for escape from nagging injuries—but is “barefoot” running truly a healthier way to go?
Not necessarily. Running “barefoot” or truly barefoot is known to strengthen the small muscles of the foot and ankle, but studies have not determined whether the lack of cushioning prevents injuries, causes them or has no effect. What research has shown, however, is that either barefoot mode causes you to run differently, says Reed Ferber, PhD, director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Calgary in Alberta. The difference lies in how your foot lands.
If you’re running shoeless or in barely-there sneakers, you hit the ground with your midfoot or forefoot instead of your heel and take shorter steps than someone in traditional shoes. Some experts believe that this gait stresses the heel and Achilles tendon less than the typical heel-to-toe motion. But because your stride will probably be shorter when you’re barefoot or “barefoot,” you will compensate by taking more steps. Ferber estimates that over the 26.2 miles of a marathon, for example, a runner in traditional footwear takes an average of 40,000 steps, whereas one who is barefoot or minimally shod takes 7,000 more. By that reckoning, barefoot running wouldn’t save your body any wear and tear, especially over long distances.
But footwear packed with cushioning and other design innovations may not stave off trouble either. “Our data suggest that those shoes don’t necessarily make a predictable difference in running injuries,” says Bruce Jones, MD, injury-prevention program manager at the U.S. Army Public Health Command, where he studies these products. “The technology is based on hypotheses.” Cushioned shoes, he explains, may help prevent an impact-related injury, like shin splints, while causing a different problem, such as Achilles tendinitis. The reason: Added cushioning may distort the way your knees, legs and ankles work together to absorb shock. In analyzing several recent military studies, he found that people who ran in shoes tailored to their foot type—such as high or low arches—were injured just as often as those who didn’t.