I wrote a brief post a while back about barefoot running after taking a course at an APTA (American Physical Therapy Association) conference. After taking another PT course on it again, I’m revisiting the topic with some thoughts (as always, this is such a changing topic so updates are forthcoming):
1. Barefoot running definitely has been shown to slow the rate (or speed) of loading forces upon initial contact and into loading response (when most of the foot is touching down). See the picture drawing below (I did not draw it BTW, just a quick reference from photobucket) showing the distinct impact peak in landing with shoes. If you have more time, here are excellent videos illustrating some of these concepts courtesy of Dr. Daniel E. Lieberman from Harvard University, who has written extensively on this topic and presented at our course.
3. Barefoot running and using zero-drop shoes (I’m assuming that this is synonymous with initial midfoot or forefoot landing and not heel contact first) is most likely a skill that needs to be learned by most runners, if they have worn shoes with any sort of heel. This typically requires a specific strengthening program for the foot and a specific gradual training program.
4. There are studies that show that barefoot running will place less stress on the knee joint but place more stress on the achilles tendon and calf muscles.
5. (Just my opinion, no research) The last statement leads me to think that the forces are going to be dispersed somewhere through the body and ultimately it depends on a variety of factors (muscle strength, joint mobility and flexibility, muscle tone, biomechanical compensations, genetic factors needed to run endurance well etc…along with running form) that are ALL going to contribute whether each individual can run barefoot.
6. I am an interesting example of this. I am a natural sprinter by genetics (100-maybe 800 m) who has also run distance for a number of years as well (cross country in high school and now road races). I also have very tight calves and run landing much more midfoot than the typical runner. Ironically, I have tried “barefoot training” by using racing flats in races in Cross Country in high school (happen to run my fastest race when I did this) and by transitioning into my track spikes every spring (that will make for calves sore for sure). I’ve been wanting to try an official transition to a minimal shoe for some time to see what it is like, but losing weight and having a baby has prevented me from officially trying it yet. That being said, I honestly don’t think my body will be able to handle running minimalist long term or exclusively because of my specific biomechanics, range of motion and muscle tone in my lower extremities.
6. (Opinion) I have got to think that the speed of the distance runner interplays into this, especially comparing an elite runner at the end of the race to an average weekend runner. The faster the distance runner-the more the form changes to looking like that of sprinting. I haven’t done or seen much research on this yet but am interested to see where this goes as elite runners continue to get faster.
8. It is very interesting to know that while cadence increases and stride length decreases with proper barefoot training taking more steps does not appear to contribute to increased injury, as shown by the research.
7. While there are many people debating whether barefoot running is better or not, Physical Therapists are often not included in these debates. This is surprising only because we are the only profession (besides possibly podiatry which does not focus on the trunk , pelvis, hips, spine and upper extremities) that studies the gait cycle in our curriculum and treats the whole body consistently. We have perhaps the greatest understanding of typical and atypical gait in walking and running and the education on how it pertains to injury development, how to best prevent it and the differences in how muscular and biomechanical factors in various individuals interplay. The fact that we can do specific hands-on joint mobility and muscle tone testing and evaluation for comparison in various individuals is one area that I think will add great value to the subject vs. just viewing running form on a video and looking at basic flexibility and strength.
8. There seems to be differences in or perhaps a lack of standard terminology when describing running gait terminology by some individuals. This is not an attempt to “knock” any group, just that it does show that while some groups (ie. coaches for example) have great input on their experience, until they understand and have studied all of the specifics that go into gait, running, musculature, abnormalities etc., and know how to describe and compare specifics, there will always be pieces of the puzzle missing when discussing and debating the topic.