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The Sports Doctor: Pros and cons of running barefoot

Danielle Gardner/Staff Photographer/The Sun
2007.03.22 Sun Studio-- Mug shot of Dr. Robert Weil
Danielle Gardner/Staff Photographer/The Sun 2007.03.22 Sun Studio-- Mug shot of Dr. Robert Weil

I’ve had many questions and inquiries about those minimalist running shoes and about the trend of the less shoe the better, as well as the hoopla about the barefoot running trend.

Let’s take a look at this: what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Since the running boom really got started more than 35 years ago, there have been lots of studies on the role of running shoes, and tremendous advances in materials and components of shoes.

All the major brands have poured millions of dollars and countless hours of research into what would best protect runners and running/jumping athletes from all sorts of foot and lower leg problems.

For the most part, they’ve done a good job. The shoes of today are far superior in all ways from support, motion control, stability and weight, to cushioning, traction and sizing.

Emphasis on foot type variables such as shoes for flat-type over-pronating feet or high-arch supinated feet have continued to improve.

I don’t know how many articles I’ve written or radio show topics we’ve had where the advice “know your foot type and mechanics and choose the proper shoe” have been stressed.

With that said minimalistic shoes that do little more than cover your feet are soaring in popularity because of some over hyping in books and articles that say less shoe is better.

I’ve always recommended to athletes, runners and non-runners alike to strengthen their feet and ankles! (Go to Sportsdoctorradio.com/newspaper articles (Oct. 13, 2009) and read “Strengthen Your Game from the Ground Up”). Often included might be some barefoot running on grass or sand to work the various foot muscles and tendons in different ways than with shoes.

This advice was always for the athlete not already dealing with the various types of foot-type-related problems like plantar fasciitis (heel and arch), shin splints, runner’s knee and other postural “overuse problems.” These runners not only benefitted from optimum shoes but also benefitted from prescription in-shoe orthotics to control abnormal motions, or other biomechanical problems.

Running barefoot or in minimal shoes for them only made the problems worse. These factors don’t even consider the importance of protection from rocks, glass and other common ground obstacles, which to say the least is far more common than not. In the safe, ideal setting like a grass golf course or a sandy beach, the variety of running barefoot can be both exhilarating and beneficial if not overdone.

The stride and foot strike of running barefoot often is different (landing on the ball of the foot or mid-foot, compared to heel striking with shoes), and this can work and condition different muscles of the foot and lower leg. Again, this can be and often is of benefit to the trouble-free and good foot-type runner.

Here are some other points to consider: There is no evidence that running barefoot or with minimalist shoes reduces running-related injuries. Also, there is no evidence that it improves performance.

The general consensus from sports medicine experts still says wear the proper shoes for your foot type and mechanics.

A little variety with some barefoot running on safe surfaces can be fun and productive for exercising “little-used foot muscles,” but not a great idea if you’ve got a history of problems and injuries.

Stick with optimum shoes for the vast majority of your running, and if interested mix in (10 to 20 percent) of minimalistic shoe work on a gradual basis. Listen to your body and strengthen those feet and ankles!

Dr. Robert A. Weil is a sports podiatrist with an office in Aurora. You can hear him on his weekly radio show every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. CST at HealthyLife.net. Contact him at drrweilsportsdoctor@yahoo.com or call his office at 630-898-3505.

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