Barefoot running

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

March 2012

Don't be surprised to see shoeless runners in your neighborhood or park sometime soon. It's a trend that's picking up plenty of enthusiasts but like many trends, it has its share of controversy.

Going barefoot seems reasonable considering that much of the world's population goes through life without ever wearing shoes and all of humanity did so until just a few thousand years ago. There have even been some famous athletes such as Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, who raced without shoes through the cobblestoned, pebble-spattered streets of Rome to win an Olympic gold medal in 1960.

Proponents claim that this style has several advantages. Barefoot runners tend to strike the ground with the forefoot, not the heel, supposedly with a less jarring — and possibly harmful — impact. Eliminating the weight of shoes is another factor, although that didn't seem to matter to Bikila, who set another Olympic record in shoes in 1964, only 40 days after having an appendectomy.

There are podiatrists on both sides of the issue, some of whom are long distance runners themselves. Shoes, they claim, keep us from developing adequate musculature in our feet because of unnatural arch support. That is probably true, leading some to suggest that we remain barefoot as much as possible while in our own homes. Many of the arguments for or against are anecdotal but science hasn't been much help either. There are no studies that unequivocally show performance differences or injury benefits.

Running shoe manufacturers are sure to benefit from the trend. "Barefoot-simulating" footware is becoming more popular although it too has yet to prove itself in the matter of performance.

Emergency room physicians are quite familiar with the kinds of injuries that are inevitable with the shoeless state. Bits of glass, metal shards, nails and other dangers are risks that our Stone Age ancestors didn't have to worry about. Besides, a few years without shoes make one's soles literally as tough as shoe leather so that even thorns are not the problem that they would be for those of us whose feet have only the thinnest protective layer.

Although running is an excellent way to build leg muscles, a stronger heart and more efficient lungs, it is after all, a sport, not an exercise. Running devotees will disagree, of course, but walking gives nearly comparable results without the risk of damaged knees and stress fractures. And the shoes don't cost as much.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.