Updated 24 October 2013

Ready to ditch the running shoes? Tread carefully

The jury is still out there regarding running with running shoes or barefoot. Which option will help runners avoid injury?

Putting on running shoes may alter our natural running form. Going shoeless may also lessen the impact on certain parts of the leg and foot and help build foot strength, researchers say, but so far, any benefits remain unproven.

"A lot of people are saying it's like a miracle cure for injury and you have performance increases," said Nicholas Tam from the University of Cape Town.

Tam, who led the new study, said he and his colleagues wanted to take a more critical look at the evidence.

"Not many of us kind of walk around without shoes every day," said Tam.

"We don't necessarily have those calloused feet and all that kind of stuff."

Tam's team said injuries were tied to many different factors, including running mechanics - which varied from person to person.

Run barefoot

Evidence was still shaky on whether ditching running shoes and hitting the streets barefoot would help runners avoid injuries.

Despite the "media craze" surrounding the potential benefits of barefoot running, it might not even be the answer to every stress fracture or shin splint, researchers said.

The chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Daniel Lieberman, said: "Barefoot running is not a panacea."

"The fact is we evolved to run barefoot, but that doesn't mean it's the best thing for everybody."

There are a few theories for why running barefoot may prevent injuries. There is, as Lieberman said, the idea that humans evolved to run long distances not wearing shoes.

Getting hurt

So it's hard to definitively say switching to barefoot running could lower any runner's risk of a particular injury and studies have come to mixed conclusions.

Even if the net benefit of going barefoot is positive, runners could be in danger of getting hurt while getting used to being shoeless.

For example, case studies show some people have developed stress fractures in their feet while transitioning to barefoot running, the researchers pointed out.

"There is certainly a need for controlled prospective injury studies directly comparing injury incidence, type and severity between traditionally shod runners and habitual barefoot runners," said Allison Altman from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who has studied barefoot running.

"In addition, it seems that little is known about the process of transitioning to barefoot running and how to do it successfully and without injury," she added.

For now, runners who are interested in going shoeless should make the transition gradually, researchers agreed.

"If you're going to try this you should be cautious and careful," said Lieberman.

Recreate the feel

He recommends people started by taking off their shoes and running for a few hundred metres on a smooth, hard surface to see what it felt like.

He also said paying attention to running form was especially important for those going barefoot to avoid injuries.

"People shouldn't be afraid of it, but they should be cautious and sceptical," Lieberman said.

 The review did not look closely at so-called minimalist or barefoot running shoes. Those shoes have little cushioning and are billed to more closely recreate the feel of barefoot running while protecting the feet.

Lieberman said even a minimalist shoe could affect the mechanics – so wearing one is not the same as going barefoot.




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