Running Barefoot

Running barefoot is not new. Zola Budd represented Great Britain and South Africa in the Olympics and broke the women's 5km world record in 1985 with a time of 14:48.07 (Wikipedia 2015).  She trained and raced barefoot. She is mostly unknown to the present generation of runners but the older generation will probably remember the controversial race in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when the two race favoutites Zola Budd and Mary Decker accidentally bumped into each other (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0vxAk6XsLU). It will be wonderful if Zola would one day come to this part of the world to share her experiences.

When I was young I used to run around my neighbourhood barefoot  playing soccer. It is hard to imagine children these days who are living in the city doing the same. I started
experimenting with running barefoot in 2010 at the beginning stages of the minimalist shoes era (https://www.facebook.com/notes/tho-yow-kin/barefoot-running/313881019685). My athletes started training barefoot for a while before they raced barefoot at IVP 2012/13. It was initiated by them for which I had no objection to. It started with Nashiruddin finishing 3rd in the 10km race behind Rui Yong and Jian Yong with a time of 36:53.31 which was less than a second behind the 2nd place time of 36:52.72. Nabin followed by racing barefoot in the 5km the week after in the same meet finishing 4th with a time of 17:31.69. He out sprinted Yen Bing to the finishing line, making up for the about 30meter lead Yen Bing had with a lap to go to the finish. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tthmGmGRlWs). Nabin has clocked new PBs in nearly every track race he ran after that. NYP also won its first Men's Polite Road Race team title at NP in 2013 with 5 of its runners in the top 8 all running barefoot. Some have now followed and started to train and even race barefoot but is running barefoot faster or better?

Do shoes prevent injuries?
Altman et al. (2012) in the Current Sports Medicine Report states that 79% of runners get injured in a given year. This figure is very high indeed considering the money and development in shoes over the years. Hall et al. (2013) suggests the cushioning in shoes does not reduce the peak impact force or injury. With these in mind, many shoe companies have come out with minimalist shoes which claims to mimic barefoot running. I have tried a couple myself.
My running shoes
Willy and Davis (2014) writing in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise suggest that minimalist shoes do not change the running style from heel strike to a midfoot or forefoot strike. This would mean a higher impact force without cushioning until the user of the shoes change their foot strike pattern. Altman et al. (2012) has a similar conclusion stating that it is not clear whether minimalist footwear can be used to mimic barefoot running. Although running barefoot removes the disadvantages of running in shoes, running barefoot by itself would not guarantee prevention of injuries. Blisters are common in the initial stages of running barefoot as the foot learns to adapt. Barefoot runners are also prone to injuries to the toes if the running form is not right. Runners who are used to heel strike will encounter tightening of the calf muscles when they change their landing to midfoot.

Advantages of running barefoot
1.  Shoes are designed with a certain weight balance. Some shoes because of the heavier weight at the heel of the shoes prevents the runner from landing mid or forefoot. Running barefoot allows the user to control landing and can adjust to the different terrains as when needed.
2. It is easy for coaches to see and record landing patterns if the athletes run barefoot. The athletes can then adjust the running gait if required.
3. Altman et al. (2012) states that running barefoot gives the runners better sensory feedback. Muscle timiing/activation is very important in any sport.
4. Altman et al. (2012) also suggest that with the better sensory feedback from running barefoot, there is an increase of energy storage in the arch.
5. Hanson et al. (2011) suggest that running barefoot is more economical than running with shoes.
6. Obviously no shoe no matter how light will be lighter than running barefoot which may account for point 5 above.

Should everyone or anyone run barefoot?
Soles thicken to adapt to running barefoot
It is unlikely that runners who run barefoot will ever outnumber those running in shoes. Nearly everyone is used to wearing shoes. Most have been wearing shoes since they were born. Although running barefoot is natural, most may find it uncomfortable or insecure at the beginning. The current road and pavements in cities are not what our legs are designed to run on. We bumped into some Sri Lankan athletes who were training on dirt tracks which suits barefoot running (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCe1iJyL2hc) but in cities like Singapore, one is hard pressed to find such a facility if they even exist. I do not know of any serious horse race which are conducted on synthetic track. Horse owners will unlikely risk their prize horses to train on the roads. Running barefoot on grass is a nice experience especially after rain. Running tracks are soft but are harder than grass fields and will need some time for the feet to get used to it. Running barefoot on road will take a longer time to adjust as the ground is hard and one may encounter unexpected objects.

Tips for those who want to give it a try.
1. Correct the running form first before attempting to run barefoot.
2. Start gradually by alternating with running in shoes and barefoot.
3. Run on soft surface such as grass.
4. Learn from those who have already done it.

In summary, know what you are getting into when you decide on running shoes or decide to run barefoot. Knowledge is the key. Shoes main role is for protection and probably have no performance advantage over running barefoot. Running barefoot by itself would probably not produce elite runners but its benefit should render it to be included in the repertoire of training for competitive runners.


References

Allison R. Altman & Irene S. Davis, Murphy, K., Curry, E. J., & Matzkin, E. G. (2012). Barefoot Running: Biomechanics and Implications for Running Injuries. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 11(5), 244-250.

Hall, J. P., Barton, C., Jones, P. R., & Morrissey, D. (2013). The Biomechanical Differences Between Barefoot and Shod Distance Running: A Systematic Review and Preliminary Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine, 43(12), 1335-1353.



Murphy, K., Curry, E. J., & Matzkin, E. G. (2013). Barefoot Running: Does It Prevent Injuries?. Sports Medicine, 43(11), 1131-1138.

Willy, R. W., & Davis, I. S. (2014). Kinematic and Kinetic Comparison of Running in Standard and Minimalist Shoes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46(2), 318-323

Wikipedia (Jan 2015) Zola Budd. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zola_Budd

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