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Running: barefoot vs shoes?

Toronto Fitness

By Erik Moller

Where did the barefoot running phenomenon come from? Obviously, our ancestors ran barefoot. The trend really caught fire in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, where Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila earned a gold medal in the marathon barefoot. It was a simple decision - he was given shoes that didn't feel comfortable, and seeing as he trained barefoot anyways, he opted to go barefoot.

It should be Shoeless Abebe, not Joe, but that's a different story - and baseball is of course etched in the American psyche. So, fifty years later, you may come across barefoot runners. What's the science behind this? Is it really beneficial? Why do it?

Carey Rothschild, a PT (physical therapist) from the University of Central Florida has wrestled these questions. She has run the Boston Marathon three times and recently conducted a survey on the barefoot running controversy.

It was striking.

Firstly, she discovered that running barefoot leads to the same risks for injuries as running with shoes. Most people feared running barefoot because they thought it would mess with their times. Others jumped on board and started running because they believed it would reduce their risk for injuries. 

Mechanically, when you run with shoes you tend to hit the ground harder with your heels. Today's running shoes have a lot of cushioning on the heels of the shoes. The risk for injuries when running in shoes affects the knees and hips, related to repeated stress from impact forces at the heel. When running barefoot, there were higher stress fractures on the front part of the foot and soreness in the calves.

There's no perfect recipe for running.

Not everyone should try running barefoot, you should take into consideration your foot mechanics. If you have a lower extremity or deformity or a disease that causes you to lack sensation on your feet - you should never attempt to run barefoot. Otherwise, try it out if you'd like, but there's no benefit to running in shoes.