What’s up with barefoot running? That’s inevitably the question I get from my patients who are runners with foot pain.  They are referring to the Harvard study discussed in this article:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100127134241.htm

an excellent piece that explains the famous study that has spawned a new sneaker (the Nike Free), new training methods, and of course countless debates on the benefits and risks of barefoot running.  It scientifically explains the difference between cushion-y sneaker vs barefoot running , and in easy to understand language.   The Harvard scientists quoted in the article found most people land on their heel in the “typical” sneaker run, and people who run barefoot land on the ball of the foot.  When you land on your heel, you are creating a “braking” motion at heel strike, slowing you down.  Landing on your heel also does not allow for any shock absorption (Ever try to run landing on your barefoot heel? Ouch!)

Because the foot is so springy, landing on the ball of your foot uses the muscles of your foot (and can get them stronger), and allows for better shock absorption for the leg.  The Harvard scientists concluded forefoot running (aka landing on the ball of your foot) is a more mechanically efficient running style and those cushion-y sneakers may slowly create weaker arches because our foot muscles don’t have to do any work as hard.

Well, great. Does that mean everybody should ditch their motion control sneakers, custom foot orthotics & run gracefully like wild gazelles on the west side highway?  Ummm, please don’t.

Well let me start at the beginning- when we were babies.

Lots of barefoot walking, running & “playing” from an early age is best for the foot- this will help build the arch, foot musculature, not to mention a lot sensory feedback in baby’s feet (think balance, control, “awareness”, etc). Gone are the times when we put those rigid high-top “walking shoes” on our babies getting ready to walk.  The new medical info out there has created a new baby-walking shoe, with an extremely flexible sole, which is as close to barefoot as you can get.  Think about it- if the shoe gives you all the support, why would your muscles have to work at all?  And the baby stage is exactly the time for the muscle building to happen- this is the foundation of strength your baby will have for the rest of his or her life.  Pass this info along to any parents you know.  Often this fact gets to people too late.

Ok, now you have incredibly strong arches 😉 and you probably don’t need custom orthotics- good for you.  I’d recommend walking around at home barefoot as much as possible to keep your arches strong.  But I would still recommend cushion for your sneakers and/or dress shoes.  Why?

I believe current opinion out there is that running creates a force 4-5x your body weight and sprinting creates a force 6-7x your body weight.  Running creates large forces no matter what, even if these forces are reduced by improved form.   Nobody tells you the force of running has to go somewhere- and much of that force will be absorbed in the foot if you are running barefoot, or even in a sneaker but landing on your forefoot (ball of the foot).  Forefoot runners can have significant joint wear in their feet- aka arthritis- at the navicular-1st metatarsal joint, or at the 1st toe joint; they can also have bunions and more.  There are more foot changes than just some callus….   I don’t want to scare you, just inform you that there are consequences to any running position.  The force of running will be absorbed somewhere- feet, knees, back- you can take your pick.  I personally prefer some of MY running force to be absorbed in my shoe, haha. That’s why my incredibly strong arches land at mid foot when running & prefer some cushion in her running sneakers.

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About Trish Skarulis Stallone

I’m an orthopedic and fitness physical therapist, in practice in NYC. I received a master’s in Physical Therapy from Columbia University, and am a certified strength and conditioning specialist. I’ve performed physical therapy in several gyms throughout the city and seen countless orthopedic surgeries. My passion is post-op rehab as well as foot/shoulder/knee overuse injuries. I also cast custom foot orthotics.

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