Thursday, June 6, 2013

To Barefoot or Not To Barefoot?

Minimalist and barefoot shoes have been all the rage the past few years, but recent reports show that sales are rapidly dropping. Advocates of the tiny style of shoes say that they promote better running form and help reduce pressure on the heel and knee. Not everyone is convinced, however, and some have even experienced more injuries after switching to barefoot shoes.

Barefoot shoes may not be for everyone.
Image: Harri Haataja via Flickr
Essentially, the lack of padding helps simulate running barefoot, as our ancestors would have done. Running on the heel is more uncomfortable than running on the toe, moving the stress from the back of the foot up, and therefore helping to relieve stress on the knee. But while moving the main pressure point up can initially help reduce knee pain, it also demands more of the ankle, Achilles, and calf muscles.

Unfortunately, if runners have a stiffer ankle or foot, this change in pressure can result in lower leg and foot stress fractures. Plus, the increased demand on calf muscles results in earlier fatigue for beginning runners, causing them to revert to a heel-to-toe stride and increasing pressure on the knees once more.

Minimalist shoes can have many benefits, and over time can greatly strengthen calves, ankles, foot, and toe muscles—but they are not for everyone and should be transitioned to gradually.

According to Runner’s World, people with a history of certain injuries might be better off with traditional running shoes:
  • Achilles Tendinitis
  • Plantar Fasciitis (pain in the sole of the foot)
  • Tibialis Posterior Tendinopathy (pain in the main tendon that attaches calves to foot bones)
  • Calf strains
  • Overpronation (inward rolling of foot)
  • Oversupination (outward rolling)

Those who would potentially benefit the most from using minimalist or barefoot shoes include those who want to reduce knee pressure, including those suffering from the following:
  • Early onset osteoarthritis
  • Previous meniscal (inner knee) tears
  • Patellofemoral (top of knee) pain

As for the transition, it’s not a good idea to completely switch over immediately. Even if you are a seasoned runner, switching directly over to barefoot shoes for your three-mile daily run will likely wreak havoc on your legs. A great example I have of this is when a friend of mine began joining me on runs. He hadn’t run for quite some time, but has generally good endurance. He wore his Vibram toe-shoes for our two-mile run. Later that night, his normally tight calf muscles tensed up so much that it made him feel physically ill. He could barely walk for the next three days, and even missed a day of work because it was too painful to walk there. Not fun!

Transition gradually and carefully to avoid injuries like this. Start with walking—wear your barefoot shoes for a few short walks to acclimate your foot and begin building your arch and calf muscles. After you are comfortable with this, transition to warm up exercises and drills.

Out of the shoes, make sure to stretch your calves, Achilles, and plantar fascia (sole of your foot) every day to strengthen and loosen them up. Practice calf raises and backwards walking to further strengthen and stretch. Run shorter distances than you are used to at first, and possibly switching back and forth between barefoot and regular until your legs get the hang of things.

Most importantly, if your barefoot shoes are not working out for you—if they hurt or make you feel too uncomfortable—it’s perfectly fine to ditch them! You might just need more support or motion control.