Better to run barefoot?

From the legendary
exploits of Abebe Bikila in the 1960 Olympic marathon to the much more recent
best-selling book Born to Run, barefoot running has been gaining a lot of
attention. In Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall explores the running of
the Tarahumara tribe, who cover massive distances at very high speeds running
in thin sandals. Many have used the book to promote running barefoot and level
criticism at the running shoe industry, pointing to the increase in running
related injuries since the introduction of modern running shoes in 1968.

So how valid are the
points raised by the detractors of running shoes – are the shoes really to
blame for the injuries many runners suffer?


Well, maybe and maybe

The invention of the
modern running shoe came at the same time as the initial jogging boom in the
United States. More people running will, of course, result in more injuries.
And with jogging being touted as a great way to lose weight, many of the
runners involved were not the young, svelte natural runners who would otherwise
take to running. No, these were people who were more used to spending time on
the couch. Of course running was good for their cardiovascular systems, but
their joints… well, that was another matter entirely.

The surfaces people
tend to run on in most of the western world also tend to be hard, unforgiving
surfaces like concrete and tarmac, rather than soft forest trails, which are
much easier on the joints.

“The problem I have
with barefoot running is that it’s great when you are out in the wilderness on
natural surfaces that are very forgiving, but tarmac, cement, concrete,
pavement is not forgiving. We paved the world, so we should use something to
cushion it,” said Christine Gibbs, head physiotherapist and co-owner of A Step
Ahead Physiotherapy.

The change in running
style required when running barefoot means that people move from heel strike to
forefoot strike, which also puts much more strain on the calf muscle, as this
is then used for slowing impact and providing a cushioned landing.

“I have seen people
with huge calf spasms from landing on their forefoot. It feels great, but it’s
probably not the best thing for the average person. We weren’t all made like
Kenyans and Ethiopians – they were just built for that,” she said.

This is one of the
problems with barefoot running, as elite runners who tend to be rather
twig-like in appearance and grow up running barefoot do not represent the
average runner. These natural runners tend to have very good biomechanics as
well and have no need for the support offered by many modern running shoes.

Not everybody can be
an elite runner and some of the techniques that work for elite runners do not
apply to regular runners.


Finding the right

However, a pair of
shoes, even an expensive pair, can contribute to injury problems if it is not
well suited to the runner in question.

Many runners believe
that they over-pronate, a condition where the foot rolls towards the inside
excessively after impact. The condition can be helped with motion control
shoes, which attempt to stabilise the foot. However, putting a motion control
shoe on a foot that does not need it can cause injury problems.

“I’ve had people with
horrible lower extremity problems from running in a motion control shoe when
they didn’t need it,” said Gibbs.

What many people do
not realise is that pronation is part of normal running,

“You need to pronate,
otherwise you are not doing the normal foot mechanics and absorbing shock.
Over-pronation is bad, but if you’re in the middle you don’t need a motion
control shoe,” said Gibbs.

For many runners with
recurring injury problems, just finding the right shoe can make all the

“Typically if they’re
in the wrong shoe, if you put them in the right shoe the symptoms go away and
they will be fine,” said Gibbs.


Fixing your problems

Even with a pair of
shoes that are suited to your running style, there may still be biomechanical
issues that cannot be addressed through purchasing off-the-shelf shoes. This is
where orthotics come in. These custom insoles can help address many
biomechanical problems, but not all of them.

“People have foot
dysfunctions and orthotics correct them. Does everybody need them? No. That’s
not my first method of treating people,” said Gibbs.

Although there are
people who are resistant to the use of orthotics, Gibbs believes strongly that
for those who have biomechanical problems, orthotics can be a solution.

“People need
eyeglasses to correct their vision, so why wouldn’t you need something to
correct your feet if you have dysfunctions with your feet,” said Gibbs.


However, orthotics
are not a panacea and although Gibbs has found that they work really well for
addressing problems like plantar fasciitis, there are other issues like shin
splints where orthotics tend to have very little success.

Sometimes there is
just some weakness that can be addressed through exercises.

“I try to fix the
problem by doing other things first and only then prescribe orthotics,” said

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