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Barefoot running is running, minus shoes or socks. Barefoot running is the way humans evolved to run, and subsequently worked like hell to never have to do again. Barefoot running has recently gained interest because it is purported to improve running form (via the "that really hurts, better not do that again" method of learning about gait), and because it's natural so it's been the center of some pseudoscientific claims. A common term are minimalist shoes that deliberately lack some or all modern aspects of shoes (cushioning, rigid sole, raised heel, curled toe-box, etc.) to feel almost like you are barefoot but still provide protection.
Advocates claim that running shoes put the foot in an unnatural position when striking the ground, and further that with correct form the chance of injury is lower and certain muscles are strengthened. Running barefoot supposedly teaches correct form through tactile sensation or even pain - if it hurts you are doing something wrong. Hence barefoot running alone does not help if the form does not improve.
Much of the recent interest also appears to have been sparked by the introduction by shoe company Vibram of a new shoe, "Fivefingers," that claims to mimic barefoot walking. Since barefoot proponents' claims about injury-free running stems from the runner correcting their form via the tactile sensation of barefoot running, Vibram's claim makes little sense. There has even been a study where a group of runners were given Vibram FiveFingers and gained stress fractures afterwards. This is reportedly a common injury among those who switch from regular to minimalist shoes. Unsurprisingly, Vibram has since had to settle on a class action lawsuit that attacks marketing claims about how its footwear is safer than regular shoes. As with any market niche, other shoe manufacturers have entered the market such as the Nike Free.
Barefoot enthusiasts actually advise against simply switching from regular running shoes to barefoot shoes. Instead, they recommend starting out literally barefoot and only switching to minimalist shoes once you gained enough experience doing that and have good form. The explanation is that using even minimalist shoes dampens feedback needed for a person to feel what is wrong with their form and thus correct it. Other claimed benefits include greater sensation of terrain and environment, which is why this idea can appeal to people like hippies.
Barefoot proponents often talk about how modern shoes are unhealthy and actually cause foot problems.
A lot of the arguments for barefoot running are of the Appeal to nature or Appeal to tradition type. Being shoeless/naked is "natural" and/or "what we did for millions of years". This, like virtually all other appeals to some sort of paleolithic golden age, can be countered very simply by pointing to evolution; if shoes are bad for you, the shod people would've been outcompeted by the shoeless.
There is currently not too much of a scientific consensus on barefoot running and research into the pros and cons of it is still sketchy. There are risks and benefits associated with both. The ambiguity hasn't stopped proponents from making excessive health claims for it and turning it into a recent fitness fad.
The American Podiatric Medical Association notes the ambiguous scientific consensus and recommends that runners consult a podiatrist before taking up barefoot running.
The journal Nature states: "Kinematic and kinetic analyses show that even on hard surfaces, barefoot runners who fore-foot strike generate smaller collision forces than shod rear-foot strikers." The difference between the two thus seems to be dependent on running gait.
Historically, humans ran on hard, rocky or dry deserts, frozen ground and similar hard terrain, barefoot or with early shoes. It does not follow that doing so is inherently better than wearing modern footwear, absent evidence of a systematic differences in gait and evidence that those differences have a meaningful impact on injury and comfort. Modern humans run a lot less than their ancestors, and some claimed improvements could really be down to practice at running rather than any special technique. After all, any physical activity becomes more comfortable and easier with practice.
Born to Run
Another source of interest is the publication of the book "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall in which he examines the Mexican Tarahumara Indians who run long distances barefoot. The author, who is a runner himself, overcame his injuries by modelling his running after that of the Tarahumara. McDougall makes numerous claims, including the one that modern runner shoes are actually detrimental to a runner's foot health.
There have been the occasional athletes who run barefoot. South African distance runner Zola Budd won barefoot, and the 1960 men's Olympic marathon in Rome was won by Ethiopian Abebe Bikila who lacked shoes (mainly because he didn't like how the free ones Adidas gave him felt). Today, however, elite athletes are given custom made shoes from the sporting goods companies so this will probably never happen again. However, many long distance races like marathons and half-marathons will still feature a number of barefoot runners, or runners who finished the race barefoot.
- See the Wikipedia article on Tarahumara.
- Bare Feet A Primate of Modern Aspect
- Why it's not all that according to a running blogger on the Guardian.
- Why it might be all that according to a Harvard study.
- Barefoot marathon runner and book author's FQA about the topic.
- http://barefootrunning.com/?page_id=92 Barefoot marathon runner and author's FAQ on the topic
- "Foot Mechanics & Barefoot Shoe Health FAQ." Vibram FiveFingers.
- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23439417 Link to study
- https://www.fivefingerssettlement.com/ A site dedicated to those who can be reimbursed for their FiveFingers, gives details about the case
- http://www.runnersworld.com/barefoot-running-minimalism/new-study-reaches-different-conclusion-on-kenyan-foot-strikes A barefoot-proponent and author's article about this
- http://www.fixflatfeet.com/how-shoes-cause-flat-feet-and-overpronation/ A physical therapist claims he fixed flat feet by exercises.
- "Barefoot Running." Position Statements. American Podiatric Medical Association. 2009 November 9.
- Nature on barefoot running
- Christopher McDougall. "What Ruins Running." Boston Globe. 2009 April 19.
- Karina Turok and Margie Orford. Life and Soul: Portraits of Women Who Move South Africa. Double Story. 2006.
- Cliff Redding. "In Africa, Sports Is the Thing." The Crisis, page 62. July 1998.