Bare Minimum - The rise of barefoot runningIt was the running trend of 2013, yet two years on, more runners than ever look set to kick off their trainers to try the barefoot approach. Back in the eighties and nineties, sports shoe companies promoted the theory that highly cushioned trainers offered the ultimate protection for feet from the heavy impact of running, but the emerging field of barefoot science suggests otherwise.

What the human foot was designed to do, it is now claimed by many barefoot enthusiasts, is move in an unencumbered way. To land in the most natural way possible when running – on the balls or middle of the feet – and, in doing so, to protect the body from injury.

It is certainly no secret that as running-shoe technology has advanced, so the annual tally of running injuries has increased. Why this happens is not clear cut. The barefoot brigade suggests that overly-cushioned trainers force the foot to land in an unnatural way (on the heel), which throws the body off kilter.

On the other hand, critics of barefoot running claim that, after years of wearing ‘regular’ trainers, 75 percent of runners are programmed to land on their heels. If they continue to do this in a pair of minimalist shoes or go barefoot with nothing to cushion the blow, the potential for injury soars.

Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and a leading expert on barefoot running, says switching to the forefoot or midfoot landing technique that running barefoot requires, does indeed take time and diligence. It is not, he says, just a case of kicking off your shoes. But, if you are injury prone, it could be worth the effort.

Going shoeless or even switching to less bulky trainers means you are forced to use muscles in your feet – mostly in the arch – that are usually very weak. “It also requires much more strength in your calf muscles than heel striking because these muscles must contract eccentrically (or while lengthening) to ease the heel onto the ground following the landing,” he says. “Novice forefoot and midfoot strikers typically experience tired feet, and very stiff, sore calf muscles.’” So where should you start? We asked a panel of experts how to go barefoot safely.

HOW SHOULD I APPROACH RUNNING BAREFOOT?

“If you do want to go down the barefoot route, the key thing is to progress slowly and carefully,” says Liam McManus, podiatrist at the Maidenhead Podiatry Clinic. “Take tiny, barefoot steps by walking around the house all the time in bare feet. Don’t even wear socks, get your toes used to spreading out..”

Professor Lieberman agrees, saying one of the best ways to learn how to land on your forefoot is to walk barefoot first and then practise running over very short distances – 40 to 60 metres – on a hard but smooth surface like a tennis court or a running track. “Until you develop good form and build up calluses on your feet, you’ll want to wear minimal footwear to do it,” Lieberman says. “It will take lots of work to switch. If you develop pain, stop and consult a doctor.”

HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU RUN BAREFOOT?

Professor Lieberman suggests running no more than 400 metres barefoot every other day once you have become accustomed to walking barefoot for at least a couple of hours a day. “Then increase your distance by no more than ten percent a week,” he says. “This is not a hard and fast rule, but a general guide. If your muscles are still sore, do not increase the distance for another week.”

He says regular runners need not drastically cut down their mileage, but should gradually increase the ratio of barefoot to shod sessions. “Be patient and build gradually,” stresses Lieberman. “It takes months to make the full transition.”

CAN I SWITCH BETWEEN WEARING SHOES AND NOT?

Modern lifestyles mean that all too often it’s simply not practical to switch to completely barefoot running. Podiatrist Daleen de Ronde advises mixing minimalist footwear with some barefoot running. “In a minimalist shoe, you are looking for a lack of cushioning in the heel, otherwise you’ll be pointing your toes too much,” she says. “The sole and arch support should be flexible, not stiff, so that the muscles and ligaments of the foot function as they are supposed to.”

De Ronde says that a compromise is often the best approach. The spectrum of running shoes now stretches from stability and motion-control trainers with ultimate levels of structure and protection to the Vibram FiveFinger-style foot gloves designed to be little more than a second skin for the feet. In between there are the minimalist shoes with heel drop – the differential of the height off the ground of the heel and of the forefoot – ranging from 0mm to 12mm. “My advice for running shoes would be to gradually aim for something in the middle, which would take the strain off the Achilles tendon, promote forward momentum and maintain some cushioning in the heel,” says de Ronde.

Words by Peta Bee