Canadian women’s marathon record holder and eighth-place finisher in the 1984 Women’s Olympic Marathon
My biggest concern with unshod running is people think that what works for a few should work for everyone. Those who propose barefoot running, or would like to become barefoot runners in a short amount of time, want to become as efficient as the runners who have run barefoot most of their lives by the nature of where they have grown up. “They want the glory without knowing the story.” In other words, they don’t know what life circumstances, training, etc. has resulted in those who run barefoot being able to run barefoot. I lived and trained in Florida for a number of years, and there were runners from African and other countries training there at the same time. These runners have a very biomechanically efficient, neutral gait cycle…no pronation, no supination. They have walked and run barefoot their entire lives, so they have strengthened all the intrinsic muscles and ligaments in their feet, legs, etc.This enables them to run very efficiently with minimal (or no) footwear. The other reality is that many people in North America, in particular, and I am sure in parts of Europe, do not have the lithe physique of those who come from countries where running barefoot is common. Many of us are carrying a few or more extra pounds, which can cause greater impact and greater stressors when we run.
In North America, we have worn shoes most of our lives. We have not strengthened, nor have we developed those intrinsic muscles and ligaments, and our feet/legs have not had to work very efficiently. We hear that less is better (less shoe, less correction, etc.), and that we should run barefoot. This sounds good, but we are not physically prepared to do this. Sports medicine doctors will tell you that foot structure takes place up until the age of eight, so later in life we can only strengthen muscles and ligaments through foot strengthening exercises. This can prevent or speed up the healing of certain injuries, or allow some individuals to change the level of support they need in a shoe, but to do this requires time and discipline to make a gradual transition to less support. Not many people are able or willing to take the necessary time. I hear story after story of individuals who are injured because they made the drastic decision to transition into a shoe that was lighter and offered minimal support.
One of the other things that we experience as we get older is issues with metatarsalgia— pain under our metatarsals. With structural changes in our arches, there is added pressure that gets placed on the metatarsal heads. Without the benefit of structure under the arch and help to alleviate the pressure underneath the metatarsal heads, many of us find it impossible to run. Similarly, as we get older, some experience a receding of the fat pads underneath the metatarsal heads. Now even the natural cushioning that was in the foot is no longer there. We are appreciative of shoes that help cushion the forefoot and help us transition. There are many changes that we can address with footwear that allow us to continue to run through the changing seasons of our lives.
The other challenge most of us have, even if we try to minimize what we wear on any occasion, is where we run. We are surrounded by unforgiving surfaces like concrete and asphalt; most of us run on those surfaces because we have to by nature of where we live and the different seasons. Very few of the surfaces we run on actually help dampen any of the impact/force. The shoe does that for us.
The other interesting side of this is that we are seeing a greater number of injuries among young athletes, and I am convinced this is because of the footwear they wear when they are not running. Many of them are wearing skate shoes, sandals, flip flops, slides, and wrap-around footwear that gives no support. If the limited support and structure in footwear worn when they are not running can cause problems, I would be wary of recommending shoes with minimal support/cushioning when they are running. One of my retailers coaches a number of high school cross country, and track teams. He encourages his athletes to run barefoot on the grass infield of the track for a few minutes in training, but then has them put their shoes back on. He gradually increases the number of minutes they run barefoot, because this helps them get used to using less support on race day when they will wear spikes.
I began running before footwear companies were really incorporating support technologies into shoes. I overpronate quite significantly on one side, was injured for two-and-a-half years, and unable to run at all, because shoes at the time were not posted. As sports medicine footwear technologies progressed, I had an orthotic made to help my overpronation, and I chose shoes that addressed overpronation with posting and other support technologies. If I try to run in a shoe with less support, I begin to feel my old injuries again. I am very grateful for the advancements in technology that footwear companies have made. They have allowed me to run injury-free. I am not interested in going back to where we were years ago. Then we had no choice but to wear shoes that could not offer the support and cushioning that we needed, because the technology had not yet been developed.