Barefoot Running - A Podiatrist's Perspective

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Michelle Champlin, Founder & CEO of Dubai Podiatry Centre, the UAE's leading foot, ankle, leg and hip clinic, explores the pros and cons of barefoot running which has seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years. Is it all good and can anyone run 'barefoot'?

What is barefoot running?

The rationale for barefoot running is to run in a more 'natural' way with your forefoot striking the ground first. Barefoot aficionados claim that human feet have been running unshod and without cushioned sports shoes and seek to return to this style of running. For the last 30-40 years ‘barefoot’ or minimalistic sport running has returned (remember the track and field Olympian Zola Budd?), although in recent years it has exploded in popularity due to footwear developments and advertising. Celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson have even been spotted getting in on the trend. What was called minimalistic running was referred to as running with racing flats.

Barefoot/minimalistic running (MR) has been thought to prevent injuries and/or off load pressure to certain joints in the lower limb; commonly the knee joint, ‘as you are running in your natural form’.

What are the potential pitfalls of barefoot running?

A recent study in Gait & Posture Journal by the National Taiwan Normal University looked at different running styles and the potential for injury. It found that runners can gain more shock absorption and limit injury risk by switching to a forefoot strike. However, runners who carried on hell striking first when barefoot may be at higher risk of injury. Barefoot running is not for everyone, and a major pitfall is that human feet, although designed perfectly to function in their natural form, can suffer with modern flooring and paving such as concrete and are not generally walking on soft, natural materials now. Often those who begin barefoot running, do it through fads, or friendly recommendations.

Without proper training or poor biomechanical suitability for barefoot running, it can commonly lead to metatarsal stress fracture(s). To adjust to a new style of running, it doesn’t take weeks to adjust to, barefoot/ MR running, it takes months to even a year to perfect. Barefoot runners must start running in a forefoot strike first style and away from a heel strike and failure to do so can result in muscle strain and injury. Excessive time spent weight bearing barefoot on hard surfaces can lead to complaints such as plantar fasciitis, corn and callous formation.

It is also important to take note that relieving the pressure from one joint, doesn’t make the pressure go away, it will just go somewhere else. Commonly with barefoot running, the increase of pressure will go from the knee, to the foot and ankle joint. Also, if you are someone who chronically suffers from Achilles tendonitis or metatarsal stress, barefoot running is not for you.

Elite runners who run barefoot / minimalistic running

Elite professional competitive runners are young and have a lean and muscular frame. As part of their training technique, barefoot running or MR may be used once a week to strengthen the muscles in their feet.

A racing athlete’s ultimate goal is to shave seconds off their running times, which is why they use various training techniques to achieve this goal. During racing, the elite runners will wear light-weight racing flats.

You should ask yourself what is your main reason/motivation to barefoot run… to remove seconds from your previous running achievements? And do you have the build and training of a professional athlete?

For those who are considering barefoot running, you should speak to a Podiatrist, preferably a biomechanics specialist who will assess your gait and provide professional advice on barefoot/minimalistic suitability, while also assessing the reasoning to behind the motivation to change running techniques. They can provide expert advice on running footwear and advise on the most suitable type for your biomechanics. They may also even advise orthotics to correct any anomaly and ultimately improve your running. It may well not come down to a clear cut 'which is better, barefoot or sports shoe running style' but rather a personal, subjective decision based upon what is best for you and your own running style and biomechanics. A Podiatrist can help advise you with your decision.

About Dubai Podiatry Centre

Michelle Champlin is the Founder and Chief Podiatrist of Dubai Podiatry Centre, the UAE’s leading foot and ankle specialists established over 12 years ago. She is the inventor of the Footerella, a unique trademarked device designed to tighten and tone women’s feet. She leads a team of UK qualified and experienced podiatrists, specializing in areas including children’s feet, sports podiatry, skin and nail disorders and diabetic foot management. Dubai Podiatry Centre is the Middle East’s only clinic with an in-house orthotics laboratory providing our custom corrective prescription orthotics.

Tel: +971 4 3435390 / Email: info(at)dubaipodiatry(dot)com /

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Michelle Champlin

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