If you are a runner, you have probably heard about the recent trend to run “barefoot.” Barefoot runners may actually be running without shoes or with minimal cushioned footwear – shoes with thin soles. What are the benefits of running barefoot?
For one thing, running barefoot has a much different ground strike than running with sneakers. When running without shoes, the foot strikes the ground in the mid-foot or forefoot area. In sneakers, the foot strikes the ground with the heel first. After heel strike, the foot is quickly forced toward the ground by the heel shape and cushion in the sneaker, increasing the ground reaction force back to the body and stress to the lower leg. This can lead to injury. In fact, it appears that the more cushioned the running footwear, the greater potential for overuse injuries.
The foot, using small muscles and nerve fibers, transmits information regarding body position and movement to the brain. The information transmitted by our feet allows us to adjust our body to accommodate to changes in different surfaces. However, when a barrier, such as a sneaker, is placed on the foot, the input and information are reduced, therefore decreasing foot stability.
Most people in cultures that run barefoot or with minimal footwear (like moccasins) have developed strong foot muscles over time. One study showed that the reduction of arch support in sneakers led to an increase in foot muscle size and strength. This makes sense when you consider that the less support the muscle has, the more it must work to do its job. Supporting the foot with an arch support actually allows for the muscles to do less work and thereby become weaker.
If you are considering running barefoot:
If you have developed an overuse injury or have questions about running barefoot, consult with a physical therapist  or other health care provider.