The idea of walking around - let alone running - barefoot can seem strange and even dangerous. What about the dirt, broken glass, hard concrete? And yet, the barefoot movement is growing fast.
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It’s all about our evolution
It may seem that people have always worn shoes, so having something on our feet is completely natural. And yet, at an earlier stage in our history – when humans were still confined to Africa – everyone went around – and hunted – barefoot. Our upright posture means that we are slow runners compared to many mammals, so how did early humans manage to catch their prey? According to many scientists, our key success factor was endurance – apparently, humans can run for much longer than, say, an antelope. The fact that we can sweat and thus prevent overheating is a big bonus: a band of humans could pursue an animal for hours if needed, until the prey collapsed. And all that running had to be done barefoot.
The barefoot movement started with the publication of a book by Christofer McDougall called Born to Run, about the Tarahumara indians in Mexico – they run very fast barefoot, covering long distances and almost never getting injuries. Supporters of the barefoot movement suggest that we should learn from them.
The myth about running shoes
Of course, making the leap of faith and actually taking off the shoes can be difficult. Indeed, for decades such companies as Adidas and Nike have taught us that our athletic success depends on the shoes we wear and that running shoes protect us from injuries, reduce the impact, and prevent fatigue.
Interestingly, there is no study that would prove that running barefoot carries a greater risk of injury. And as for the impact, using shoes all the time creates what is called “heel strike” – we land on our heel, which is not natural and hardly good for our posture (more info here).
Don’t try to do it yourself
We have to warn you, though: if you try running barefoot the way you normally run, you will not enjoy it: the habit to strike with the heel will make it painful. For your first barefoot experience, choose a proper training program: you will be taught the correct posture and how to strike with the ball of your foot, which dramatically reduces the load – that’s how our ancestors ran.
Of course, you have to be sure that there are no shards of blass, rusty iron, or dog feces where you are running. As for walking around, being barefoot can create social problems, so many companies now offer special shoes that imitate being barefoot, such as Vibram Five Fingers. They usually feature extremely thin soles and take some getting used to, but once you adapt to them, such barefoot shoes are very comfortable.
What about the kids?
Many pediatric specialists believe that kids should run around without shoes as much as possible. Indeed, babies are born with no real bones in their feet – just cartilage, and it takes many years for the feet bones to form. Making toddlers and small children wear shoes can hamper the natural development of the foot and prevent them from crawling, walking, and running properly; some data even suggests that bad shoes can lead to learning difficulties. So, let your kids walk around barefoot – at least at home.
If you are a casual jogger or a serious runner, barefoot exercise can become a real discovery for you. Remember, however: don’t try to do it alone and trust professionals. Running barefoot may be natural for humans, but you will need professional advice to avoid injury.
Barefoot running: an evaluation of current hypothesis, future research and clinical applications -Bjsm.bmj.com
Barefoot running, shoes, and born to run – SportsScientists.com
Learning to move and run in Vibram FiveFingers – Us.vibram.com