Myths and Misinformation
You hear many negative things said about barefoot running and indeed about barefooting in general. Most are the attempted application of common sense, to a subject the speaker knows nothing about. The more common repeated myths are:
You’ll Step on Glass
The truth is you don’t normally step on glass on the pavement (or anywhere else) anyway. Without realising it you are subconsciously scanning the ground ahead, and tend to avoid obstacles like glass. So without shoes on you are a little more observant. After a short time you learn to trust the subconscious scanning and it’s no big deal.
Barefoot Running is for Everyone
I think that statement is very misleading. It implies that everyone could be a barefoot runner. There are two problems with just anyone becoming a barefoot runner.
- Your body needs time to adjust to the different loading stresses. So it’s probably not a good idea to start barefoot running if you’re greatly overweight. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the forefoot isn’t going to be strong enough. You should look to reduce your weight first before starting.
- The other reason is that it takes a long time to master this new technique, and along the way you will make some mistakes and get injuries that will slow your progress. Not everyone will stick to this, it depends how determined you.
Thus although it could be for everyone, not everyone will give it a proper try.
Barefoot Running Hurts. Ouch!
Remember, pain is not an injury, even if an injury can be painful.
There are a few ways, as your body gets used to barefooting, that you could experience some mild pain. Stepping on a small stone whilst building up the thickness of your soles is quite painful, depending which part of the foot makes contact. But remember that this pain only lasts a couple of steps then it’s gone. Your body actually requires this to activate it to thicken the skin at that point to help protect the body for this new activity. Your soles will not thicken without a little discomfort like this.
The good news is that your body adjusts very quickly, and before you know it, that tarmac that on your first few runs that made your soles feel sore, will soon have no effect at all.
Metatarsal Stress Fractures
Not that old chestnut
This is one of the biggest reported side effects of barefoot running. It’s an argument usually touted by anyone with an interest in the status quo of shoes. Podiatrists, chiropodists, fitness instructors, etc., all like to warn of the dangers of fracturing a metatarsal by running without shoes. This argument is without evidence.
My own view is that in most cases it’s not a metatarsal stress fracture at all, but a ligament sprain. However such is the promotion of the dreaded stress fracture that when I developed a pain in my third and forth metatarsals I was convinced I’d succumbed to a one. I went to A&E and had them X-ray it. Nothing was fractured and the diagnosis was a ligament sprain. I’ve had this once in each foot now. I attribute this to over exuberance and not taking it slowly.
A lot is spoken about transitioning from contemporary running to barefoot running. Many people advocate slowly replacing your current running with barefoot running. This seems counter-intuitive to me. You are trying to learn a completely different style of running, whilst still running in the same conventional way. The gaits are completely different. You are trying to teach your body to adapt and make physical changes to your foot/ankle/leg muscles, ligaments, soles, etc. Continuing to run in your old style is going to lead quickly to overuse injuries. Not to mention the confusion on acquiring your muscle memory to the new mechanics of running.
My opinion is that transition should involve you stopping running in your old conventional way altogether and starting from scratch. This will be hard if you are currently running, which is why the successful switchers to barefoot tend to try it after recovering from an injury. Thus they are already starting from a zero mile standpoint and don’t feel cheated they have to start again in terms of the distance they’ve previously built up to. The people recovering from injury have usually discovered barefoot running whilst looking for reasons for why they got injured in the first place.
For those that wish to keep their fitness levels up whilst transitioning, cross-training with other exercise is the obvious way to go using other activity to make up the shortfall.
Calluses are Ugly
There is a perception that your soles need to callus-over in order to provide the protection that you need to run at distance without shoes. This is untrue. Calluses are caused by shearing forces–sideways movement rather than downward pressure. Barefoot running involves no sideways movement, only downward pressure. The foot is not used to ‘push off’, acceleration and deceleration happens slowly avoiding any shearing forces.
What needs to happen is for your soles to thicken without calluses and that’s exactly what happens. Any serious barefoot runner has thicker skin on their soles but it’s just normal healthy looking callus-free skin.
Of course your feet will get dirty, just as your shoes do. You wash your feet; does anyone wash the soles of their shoes?
Speed & Efficiency: Faster, Harder, Stronger?
Most people look to barefoot running as a solution to the problems they have running conventionally. They don’t care if it’s faster, or more efficient to run without shoes. This hasn’t stopped studies trying to see if it’s more efficient or not, and different conclusions have been drawn from different studies.
However it takes a long time to hone a new running style, so to get a participant, experienced or not, to undergo a test running in both styles; then to form some conclusions about the measurements taken is just too simplistic. The inexperienced barefoot runner can’t possibly be performing at their best as it takes time to learn. Similarly the experienced barefoot runner is no longer experienced at running with shoes, so again this isn’t great for comparing alternative gaits.
Above all, you tend to find that runners who make the transition to barefoot suddenly realise that they like running more than they ever did before. They stop worrying about their pace, the distance they do, what’s playing on their iPod, etc. People who make the transition actually realise that their goal is now to enjoy running and not to simply make the running an ordeal to get through.
The idea of grounding/earthing is that you need to be in contact with the earth to ground yourself and stop the build up of negative energy in your body. There is no evidence for this, it’s just pseudo science at its worst. Google grounding and have a look through the sites promoting it; you’ll find zero references to any medical studies. What you will find however are links to grounding products, like shoes, etc. that the website promoting this nonsense theory will be all to pleased to sell you. Google grounding hoax for a more enlightened view.