For many the idea of running barefoot would seem counterproductive or even dangerous however barefoot running has a strong cult following. It would be an easy assumption to make that the participants of this activity are limited to small fanatical groups, however supporters of barefoot running come from the highest level and there are ample amounts of scientific evidence to support its benefits.
Probably the most obvious evidence that barefoot running can be performed at an elite level comes from the Ethiopian athlete Abebe Bikela who in 1960 won the Olympic marathon. This race wasn't won on a graded track; it was run over the uneven streets of Rome. So how is it possible for someone to win a race barefoot against opponents who have the benefit of shoes? Olympic silver medalist and 5 time world record breaking runner Gordon Pirie would say that it is easy to believe, and that shoes often show no benefit. Pirie states that the difference between running barefoot and running in a typical running shoe can be up to 30 seconds in a mile, faster barefoot. Pirie also states that the way in which typical running shoes are designed promote incorrect running technique.
Correct running technique as described by several reliable sources, is performed with the mid foot or ball of the foot hitting the ground first. Landing on the ball of the foot first enables the runner to have greater shock absorption especially when paired with a flexed knee. The typical running shoe today is equipped with a padded wedge at the heel. This wedge at the heel is being blamed for causing the incorrect, heel first, straight knee technique in running that causes more of a jarring effect on the joints and less acceleration. The picture below shows an example of two 12 year old Kenyan runners, one who uses shoes and the other who doesn't; the difference in their technique is obvious; one landing on the heel, the other on the ball of the foot.
(The difference in running style over time with shoes [right] and without [left])
Another issue that Pirie notes with running shoes is the poor fit that they have around the heel and the tag of material found around the top of the heel that attempts to hold the foot in place and protect the Achilles tendon. Pirie explains that with every plantar flexion of the foot this Achilles "protector" impinges on the tendon, jabbing at the soft area of connective tissue and, after running over long distances this tag can cause discomfort and possible injury.
So what advice is given to remedy these problems? Pirie advises all his trainees to make adjustments to their running shoes themselves. These adjustments work to mirror the shoes worn by professional sprinters and allow the foot to perform as it would if it were running bare. The adjustments consist of cutting the heel wedge of the runner down until the padding at the back of the shoe is equal or less than that around the ball of the foot. It is also advised that the Achilles tag at the back be cut off completely. This should result with the shoe being about half the normal size. Lastly surgical padding is to be put around the heel of the runner to create a snug fit that causes as little movement of the foot inside the shoe as possible.
(The difference between professional running shoes [right] and commercial ones [left])
From the information presented in this article it may seem that barefoot running is unanimously accepted by all as a beneficial activity however opinions on its positive effects are still widely debated. Many state that running barefoot holds no benefit and actually causes injury. The best advice before undertaking barefoot running is to build into it slowly.