I find it hard to believe that it is almost 2 years since I last wrote about my own barefoot running. Many weeks and miles have passed since I first tried running without shoes back in 2009. In the meantime the subject of running barefoot and also especially running in minimalist shoes has become mainstream.
Why have I left it so long to write about my own barefoot running. Well, for one thing it seems like the world and his wife are writing about their barefoot running experiences. And secondly, I’ve not run completely barefoot since 30th June last year. This has not been a conscious decision, I suppose my motivation to run barefoot has lessened; my own personal barefoot experiment has run its course. This isn’t to say that I’ll not run barefoot again. I almost certainly will once the weather improves and the dire conditions of the English roads is addressed.
So, what has my barefoot experiment shown me?
- I do not need ‘anti-pronation’ shoes
- There is (for me) an alternative to running with orthotics
- Running barefoot is really rather nice
- It is easy to get injured running barefoot
Over twenty years ago, after suffering with Runner’s Knee — and I am talking about Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS), and not ITB friction — I was prescribed and told I needed to run in orthotics, and that I should be running in ‘anti-pronation’ shoes. The reasons why were explained in much detail and convincingly by a podiatrist. The treatment worked and I was able to control my Runners Knee for many years. But it wasn’t ideal, my orthotics effectively propped up the medial side of my foot by a few millimetres, which was fine when I was running, but not so fine when I wasn’t. My years of running with orthotics seemed to have changed the ‘natural’ position of my feet and ankles. It’s not surprising really that this apparent reshaping had occurred, but it didn’t feel ‘right’.
It felt even less right when I began to explore what it was like to run barefoot. I wanted my feet and ankles to feel normal again, and as more barefoot miles passed this is what happened. But something else was apparent too, my old vulnerability to Runners Knee seemed less. This wasn’t the only benefit either. My acquaintance with barefoot running coincided with a long-standing plantar fasciitis condition. Long-standing because no other treatment had managed to shift it. Now, within two weeks it was completely gone. Whether this miraculous recovery was prompted by running barefoot I do not know (and maybe never will).
It wasn’t all good news though. I introduced barefoot running very gradually. There was no other way to do it frankly, the feet got so very sore on such short runs that progress was slow. I tried some aqua shoes (the cheapest shoes I have ever run in) to protect my soles. But that meant I could run further and faster increasing the loading on my Achilles tendon and calf muscles with predictable results: an Achilles strain that took a long time to repair. However, it did repair and I did return to running barefoot.
I never had the ambition to become a ‘barefoot runner’. By that I mean someone who predominantly runs without shoes. However, I did have an aim of running at least a 5k race barefoot, but that was never accomplished; perhaps it will be one day. My other aim was to run about 10% of my weekly miles barefoot, and that too is on the back-burner, especially at this time of year. My delving into the world of barefoot running was initially an experiment and it quickly became a training facet. It changed my running, and I think for the better. It also changed my preferences for running shoes. Gone were the medial posts, the hard heal counters, the chunky heals, to be replaced by softer, more flexible, lighter running shoes. It also heightened my understanding of running form and technique and how running without shoes can be used ro make improvements for some runners.
So that’s me, what about the media, the science, and the experts?
Without doubt, Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run opened a can of very wriggly worms. Running shoes were never to be the same again. What started as a somewhat small — and at some times rather evangelical — barefoot running brigade, turned into a wave of marketing opportunity that was going to be exploited whatever the science told us.
And what does the science tell us? Seemingly not a lot, because there are contradictory views and research studies wherever you look. this is perfectly summed up by a report by exercise physiologist Guy Leahy, Should tactical athletes run barefoot? This report is well-researched containing 49 references. The conclusion: There is evidence that reducing frequency/duration of running maybe an effective tool for reducing RRIs (running-related injury).
So, after trawling through a huge amount of scientific study on the subject of barefoot running and injury the waters remain very muddy and we arrive at the same answer a 10 year old might give us: If you don’t want to get injured running, then run less. The report is very interesting and it echoes what many others say (and what I have experienced): barefoot running can help those who suffer certain injuries, but it also can increase the risk of developing others.
But what about all those contradictions and why do the waters appear so muddy. They seem to be a product of the strong feelings on either side of the debate. Unquestionably, certain very vocal podiatrists do not help themselves by resorting to patronising and sarcastic language when commenting on the subject. Cynics amongst us might not be surprised; what does a podiatrist have to gain from a runner who does not get injured? On the other side of the coin are the multitude of barefoot commentators who shout from the rooftops quoting ill-informed ‘information’ and advice about how great barefoot running is.
So, after all the dust settles, what will the recommendations be? Common sense probably; make changes to your running very gradually, and don’t assume all is well just because things don’t hurt (yet). And, I know anecdotal evidence is frowned upon in the world of science, but when science does not give us the answers we seek, then maybe we should talk and listen to people who have been there and done it. Whilst their response to running barefoot or in minimalist shoes is likely to be different to ours, we can still learn a lot from what others have experienced running in the real world as opposed to a small number of people running on a treadmill in a lab being observed by a researcher who may or may not have their own agenda.