Barefoot and minimalist running became a popular trend over the last several years. The barefoot running technique, as its name implies, involves wearing little to no footwear while you run. The developers and advocates of this technique believe the human foot is evolutionarily designed to run barefoot, and shoes only hinder our performance and cause us injuries. David J. Keblish, MD, an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon at AAMC, disagrees.
“There is a romanticized notion that somehow the world would be a happier place if we didn’t wear shoes,” he says. “I think that’s nonsense. The human foot is not evolutionarily designed well for running, and I don’t think shoes are causing the problem.”
Dr. Keblish believes it is our modern lifestyle that ruins our feet, not our choice of running shoes. “We’ve turned the earth flat, and most of us spend all day long in shoes without ever exercising the many muscles in our feet” he says. While early humans had a variety of terrains under their feet, we have mostly flat surfaces. Running on sidewalks, roads and gym floors is tough on our feet—the repetitive motion of feet hitting hard, flat pavement adds stress on our joints and prevents us from adapting to other surfaces.”
“People who don’t have shoes don’t have better feet,” he says. “You don’t see marathon runners running barefoot or in minimalist shoes.”
There is one aspect of barefoot running that Dr. Keblish does agree with—the forefoot strike technique. This running technique involves landing on the balls of your feet each time you take a step rather than heel striking, or landing on your heels first. Proponents of barefoot running suggest that forefoot striking is more intuitive when running barefoot, while shoes with thick soles and heels cause us to heel strike.
“We shouldn’t be heel striking heavily, if at all, when we run,” Dr. Keblish agrees. Training ourselves to forefoot strike is hard to do, he adds, but is better for our feet in the long run.
Dr. Keblish also advises that we take time to exercise our feet. “We wake up and immediately stuff our feet into slippers or shoes and most of us keep them there all day, which is not good,” he says. “Feet are like hands; we need to get those joints moving.”
To do this, Dr. Keblish says, take the time to wiggle your toes, rotate your ankles and massage the soles of your feet before you get out of bed. He also advocates going barefoot or in minimalist shoes when doing balance drills and resistance training, such as squats and lunges to develop strong feet.