A new player in the shoe game
Over the past decade or so, there has been new research and ideas when it comes to how shoes and training are designed. One theory that has gained a lot of attention is barefoot running.
Barefoot running became popularised thanks to the best seller “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. In the book, McDougall tells the story of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, whose lifestyle consisted of barefoot activity. Through the book, McDougall describes their amazing athletic feats and lifestyle, which was all done barefoot.
Following this, companies like Vibram and New Balance began to make athletic shoes that mimicked this barefoot design. The shoes were designed without a heel counter, meaning the shoe is on even surfacing from the heel to the front. This in essence allows our foot to naturally hit the ground without the support or cushioning of the modern sneaker.
Although some of claims have been debunked over the years, the barefoot running style garnered excellent evidence for increased efficiency with running gait patterns especially when paired with exercises targeted for intrinsic foot strengthening.
The overall point of barefoot running is to improve foot strength, both on the inner and outer portions. With this, the foot should be able to tolerate normal running and walking without the support given from modern day sneakers.
When we walk or run without shoes, the soles of our feet are unprotected and take on excess load, and with this, the muscles at the bottom of our feet are forced to work. This group of muscles are known as the intrinsics of the foot – together, they are 20 small muscles that make up the bottom of our foot and have attachments to the bone structure of the foot.
These muscles are extremely small compared to others in the body but still require strengthening – their importance is to provide sensory input to our feet and allow our joints and foot structure to function properly within the space they occupy on the ground. They also have a responsibility in the strength and height of our arch. They are seldomly thought of in routine strengthening programs but can go a long way in making runners more efficient.
When the foot is without support from a shoe during activity, the sensation to the muscles and nerve innervation of the foot increases. As this happens, those small intrinsic muscles are awakened. The muscles are forced to push and pull on one another and work to stabilise, since they don’t have the luxury of support.
Over time as we transition from static to dynamic movements, these muscles are forced to be more efficient to maintain our stability and arch. When we take an activity like running and do it barefoot, we are forcing these small muscles to stabilise our entire lower leg. This allows the muscles that attach to our foot to function properly and move the rest of our kinetic chain more efficiently.
With all of this, the foot should be more resilient to outside forces and in essence have less of an injury risk.
This all sounds great on paper, but what happens when those small muscles of our foot are not ready to take on this load? The issue with barefoot running comes into play when people skip the transition out of running sneakers. They go straight from lengthy running sessions with shoe support to trying it out on bare feet.
So why can’t we just jump right to barefoot? It all starts with the structure of modern-day running shoes. Most neutral and stability shoes have a heel drop of 8-12mm from the back of the shoe to the front (forefoot) of the shoe. What this means is there is a greater rise at the heel of the shoe compared to the front of it. This creates a slope effect and is designed to support our heels at the initial contact of our walking and running patterns when we first hit the ground.
When we do not have that protection from our shoe, our heel and forefoot are at a level playing field. If our foot transitions away from this heel counter too quickly, injuries can occur. This is mainly due to the fact that we have more natural padding at the heel of our foot compared to the forefoot. Injuries in this area may include stress fractures, plantar fasciitis and Achilles pain as well as our foot taking on more stress than it is accustomed to.