To Shod or Unshod? That is the Question

The popularity with unshod or barefoot running is undeniable. Weeding through the evidence based and purely anecdotal can be a challenge in and of itself for someone who is looking to make this lifestyle change. Many people ask themselves or healthcare professional, “Is barefoot running for me? Will I prevent or increase injuries by changing my running style?” I get asked these questions on a regular basis from all levels of athletes.  All of whom want to get a leg up on the competition or trying to stay healthy and fit. How do you decide if this is the right choice for you?

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This is what you need to know, minimalist shoes tend to be lighter and use less mechanical work during running. This potentially means less energy exerted throughout your runs. Additionally, data has shown that runners who shift from a heel strike, which is related to shod running, to a mid-foot or forefoot strike while running barefoot have a decreased spike in ground reaction force.  This decreased spike has the potential to decrease injury particularly those related to increased ground impact. During heel strike running, the leg is used as a rigid segment. This results in an increased rate of absorption creating a high force moving through your bones rather than being dissipated through your lower extremity joints. Mid-foot or forefoot striking allows the foot to better absorb forces that will later be transferred up the kinetic chain from the ankle, knees, and hips.

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Let’s not forget about the arch, flat feet or feet with high arches are associated with many injuries including patello-femoral pain, illiotibial band syndrome, and shin splints. People with flat feet must strengthen their intrinsic foot muscles. This is an effect that can come from barefoot running. Increasing the small muscles in your feet will give you a strong base of support and has the potential to increase your arch height. High arches are known for decrease shock absorption due to a rigid foot that comes from it. For these people, flexibility of the calves and plantar fascia are a must. Barefoot running can still be accomplished with these alignments, but proper support may be required.

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These are key elements to consider before making your decision to make the switch to unshod:

  1. Biomechanical Assessment. This is most important consideration! Looking at your running gait, flexibility, and muscle deficiencies can help prevent injuries. Seek  a medical professional that will use a 3D whole body approach. Looking at the body as a connected whole will help decrease future injuries. Likewise, realizing that human movement occurs in all 3 planes of motion and should be assessed and treated in all 3 planes is important. Muscle flexibility and strength should be equal bilaterally and any side-to-side differences should be corrected especially in the hips and core.
  2. Start Slow. Be aware that switching to barefoot running will not be a fast process. Listen to your body. Moving too fast through a transition period can have the opposite effect and possibly lead to injury.
  3. Running form. Your athletic trainer can also help assess this. While running, try to maintain your center of gravity. This will allow for a forefoot strike. Heel strike occurs from a runner reaching out too far in front of his/her center of gravity. Next, decrease your stride length and increase your stride frequency. This again will help you transfer to forefoot running. If that is your goal. Lastly, keep the body relaxed. This includes relaxing the shoulders and hands and running with a slightly bent knee.

I am unable to tell you if unshod running is right or wrong for you. However, with a proper evaluation it can be made clearer how you should approach the switch. Currently, if you are experiencing no issues or injuries than switching your running habits may not be beneficial, but if you have a history flooded with injuries and are in need of a possible fix barefoot running could be a step in the right direction to relieving your symptoms

Samantha Hainline, ATC, CAFS

To Shod or Unshod? That is the Question