Barefoot running is a great alternative to running in shoes. Now, I know many shoes companies may disagree with that statement, but let’s look at the alternative. Running has its mechanics and they change when running with shoes compared to running without shoes. There is a difference in landing, stride length, cadence, knee flexion, and ground reaction forces (Dr. Daniel Cipriani, Freeing the Foot, Training & Conditioning, July/August 2013). Barefoot runners or minimalist (Vibram’s FiveFinger) land using the midfoot or forefoot portion as the primary contact area on impact, while the heel barely touches the ground, which leads to the athlete’s ankle beginning contact with the ground in a slight plantarflexed position. This type of midfoot landing requires a shorter stride and a higher cadence when compared to a traditional heel strike runner (Dr. Daniel Cipriani, Freeing the Foot, Training & Conditioning, July/August 2013). So, this change in pattern has been shown to reduce ground reaction forces due to reduced impact force at initial contact.
So, how about injury? As with any running whether with shoes or barefoot, research has shown that approximately 75% of athletes that run with shoes will sustain some form of injury, and will look for an alternate method to reduce injury. Barefoot running with its mid/forefoot strike has less impact on the initial contact with the ground, which should reduce the prevalence of injury (Dr. Daniel Cipriani, Freeing the Foot, Training & Conditioning, July/August 2013). A research continues, more studies will be completed to find additional information on barefoot vs. shoe running. In general, running shoes have still yet to show an increase or decrease in injury risk. More biomechanics studies need to be conducted in order to test the theory of pronation at the foot that occurs in running shoes. In addition, barefoot running has greater plantar foot skin injuries due to the skin being exposed to the ground, and anecdotal evidence reports an increased risk for metatarsal stress fractures and Achilles tendonitis (Dr. Daniel Cipriani, Freeing the Foot, Training & Conditioning, July/August 2013).
So, how about performance enhancement? Limited research has been conducted on this topic and those that have did not find a significant difference in shoe vs. barefoot running. The benefit of less weight from having a running shoe did cause the ankle plantarflexor muscles to absorb the initial impact and produce propulsion. Running in a minimalist shoe did provide a slight energy advantage because of shoe material, along with running mechanics. Barefoot/minimalist shoe runners did report less stress due to taking shorter, faster strides (Dr. Daniel Cipriani, Freeing the Foot, Training & Conditioning, July/August 2013).
In conclusion, it is best to transition into barefoot running or minimalist shoe running slowly, especially for individuals who have flat feet. Individuals with a high arch are already in a position of forefoot landing and would make this transition a little faster. Overall, a gradual progression is always best when moving into this type of running because the skin on the bottom of the foot needs time to adjust to these types of forces. Moreover, the shorter stride and higher cadence with a greater upright body running position will need to be used. These changes will place greater mechanical stress on the metatarsals, and metatarsal heads, plantarflexors, and Achilles tendon. A recommendation to allow these adaptations to occur is approximately 10 to 15 minutes of barefoot running 3 days a week if using a minimalist shoe. If going barefoot, a gradual exposure to approximately 5 to 10 minutes of walking or running 3 days a week would be ideal. Just keep in mind that with barefoot, minimalist shoe or running shoes, mileage and training errors are the predominate risk factors for injuries (Dr. Daniel Cipriani, Freeing the Foot, Training & Conditioning, July/August 2013).