How Dangerous is the wrong kind of running shoe?
Barefoot running is the latest trend in sports and it has many strong supporters. However, as the sport has not been popular for very long there are no long-term studies to show whether it is harmful or beneficial long-term.
The Pros of Barefoot Running
Those who support barefoot running cite the fact that we were born to run barefoot. Running barefoot or using the newly developed "minimalist" lightweight footwear is certainly much easier than picking up heavy training shoes with each step. Barefoot runners find that they naturally shorten their stride by about 7 cm (3 inches) so that they land naturally on the ball of the foot and with less impact, rather than on the heel. This is how our primal ancestors ran and it takes some time to adjust to this new style of running.
Running on the ball of the foot using the toes is theoretically less likely to cause injury that the jarring of the heel can cause to ankles, knees and hip joints. However, to cover the same distance with a shorter stride necessitates more strides. Although there is less force, adding 15% more strides may counter this benefit, producing the equivalent amount of wear and tear on the joints.
Many runners who discard their training shoes say that barefoot running naturally causes the foot and ankle to work harder to support the body's weight during running. Cumbersome training shoes may provide support and cushioning, but it resulted in the joints losing their strength and flexibility. This natural support is restored as barefoot running is embraced.
The Cons of Barefoot Running
So what are the downsides of running barefoot? First of all, after years of shoe leather separating the soles of the feet from the ground, the skin is naturally very soft and tender. Running on grass or sand can help newbies to build up toughness, or you can use minimalist "gorilla" shoes. Even softer ground does not prevent wounds to the feet from thorns, glass or nails and this can lead to a nasty infection.
Blisters are a common hazard for barefoot runners and can limit the frequency of runs until they are healed. Calf strain is another problem until you have re-educated your muscles to a new style of running barefoot. The new gait can also cause a strain on the plantar fascia, a muscle in the mid-foot that can cause crippling pain if injured or strained. There may also be a risk of pulling your Achilles tendon in the heel with the impact of running barefoot.
Those who still wish to embrace barefoot running should certainly take every precaution to avoid injury. Start slowly with just 10-15 minute sessions and work at developing the new stride, striking the floor with the ball of the foot rather than the heel-to-toe step you may be accustomed to.
Those who are heavier than 150 pounds or have any type of foot deformity should not attempt to run without the support of a good running shoe. Likewise those with flat feet or a small arch should consult a podiatrist before taking up barefoot running, as your foot may not be able to provide enough cushion or bounce to safely run without supportive footwear.