01 June 2010

Barefoot running: part 3

Dr Ross Tucker looks at the value of running shoes? Do they cause more problems than they fix, and what is the future of the running shoe industry?

In part three of his series on barefoot running, Dr Ross Tucker looks at the value of running shoes? Do they cause more problems than they fix, and what is the future of the running shoe industry?

One argument that has been put forward a great deal is that barefoot running is the way to go. Apart from the obvious practical concerns - glass, stones and other objects not meant to be run on by 'soft' feet - I'm not 100% convinced that the knee-jerk reaction in the opposite direction is the way to go either.

I know podiatrists who are of the opinion that the sole function of the shoe should be to protect the sole of the foot, which is in line with what we've been discussing, but a more extreme argument.

I'm sure there's merit in that argument, but I wouldn't dare suggest that any reader suddenly switch to barefoot running, or even to lightweight trainers if they've always worn more supportive motion-control shoes - remember, the key to successful training is managing change, and physiologically, you'll pay a hefty price if you make a drastic change like this.

Instead, the objective should be to manage the change, aiming to gradually move away from the bulky shoes and into the well-cushioned one. This requires changes in training, possibly strengthening exercises to correct weaknesses and imbalances that predispose to injury, and then the new shoe should work.

However, the debate between barefoot and shoes is nevertheless interesting, so a few interesting discussion points that arise are considered below.

Biomechanics of shoes vs. barefoot

You have no doubt heard, read or experienced that one of the main differences between running in shoes and running barefoot is that when you run barefoot, you tend to land more on the front part of the foot.

In contrast, pull on a pair of shoes and you'll land more on the heel.

There are of course other differences - barefoot running tends to have a shorter contact time, a shorter flight time, lower impact forces and higher muscle activation in the calf muscles just before landing.

You also land with your ankle more "pointed" (called plantar flexion) as opposed to dorsiflexed, or pulled back towards you. But the argument around landing on the heel vs. ball for shoes and barefoot running is one of the more common ones, and certainly less technical.

The "heel-strike" observation forms the basis of many people's arguments for why a forefoot landing is better than a heel-strike. The problem is, people often get trapped by their own logic when discussing this concept.

The thought process when it comes to barefoot vs. shoes is often the following:

3.      Therefore, landing on the forefoot is "natural" and good, but landing on the heel is unnatural and thus bad.


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