Larry Maurer, D.P.M.

Podiatrist, Kirkland, WA

Barefoot running is an attractive concept because it conveys an appropriate level of respect for the amazing structure of the human foot. Our feet support, propel, and absorb shock better than any manmade device on the planet. We don’t completely understand how the normal foot works or how we change it when we add shoes. We do know that our mechanics change as we add more weight to the foot. We also know that there are people who run barefoot very effectively.

Barefoot running is an attractive concept because it conveys an appropriate level of respect for the amazing structure of the human foot. Our feet support, propel, and absorb shock better than any manmade device on the planet. We don’t completely understand how the normal foot works or how we change it when we add shoes. We do know that our mechanics change as we add more weight to the foot. We also know that there are people who run barefoot very effectively.

Unfortunately, there are several realities that make barefoot running impractical for the vast majority of people. There is evidence that the critical period for development of the arch musculature is from zero to six years of age.During that period, children who walked barefoot had a decreased incidence of flatfoot. If you did not walk barefoot until you were six, you are four times more likely to have a flatfoot. Another commonly overlooked detail is that we were meant to walk on natural surfaces. When walking in the dirt, sand, and grass, the arch is in greater contact with the surface than when walking on manmade flat surfaces. This increased arch contact is thought to provide more sensory input through the bottom of the foot. This allows the body to make better decisions while walking and running. Finally, not everyone has the genetics to run. Deviation from the perfect biomechanics may prevent a large percentage of the population from running. Prominences on the bottom of the foot, accessory bones, and mechanical weaknesses that would otherwise eliminate the possibility for running can often be accommodated in shoes.

I do think that for the runner with good mechanics, running barefoot on natural surfaces like grass, dirt, and sand is a healthy way to go. I routinely recommend running for a short distance barefoot for all my patients, so that they can pay attention to their unaltered mechanics. If you run with a midfoot strike when barefoot, then mimic that stride with your shoes on. Avoid letting your shoes determine your stride.

At a minimum, examine your feet for calluses, which can indicate areas of overload. If you feel your mechanics are good and you don’t experience foot, ankle, knee, hip, or back pain when you run, barefoot running may be for you. If there is any question, a biomechanical exam is a good way to learn about potential problems before they become acute injuries or lead to unnecessary joint wear.

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