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01/08/2014

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Take off your shoes and run…

By Kirsty MacLeod

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The idea is simple. Our ancestors ran without shoes, relying on their ability to do so to feed and clothe themselves. So why do we need the latest cushion-soled, ankle-supporting, pound-sucking creations from the top sports-shoe brands to do what they did with none?

Barefoot running first came into the spotlight when, in 1960, Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila ran unshod through the cobbled streets of Rome, on his way to an Olympic gold medal and a new world record. In recent years it has become increasingly popular with those who say it is a better, more natural way to run, and that running without shoes prevents injuries and increases performance.

Little of this is based on research, however, says Dr Mick Wilkinson, who works on the physiology of distance running at Northumbria University’s Department for Sport and Exercise. To date, no studies have actually tested differences in injury rates or performance improvement between runners with and without shoes.

What has been shown, though, is that habitual barefoot runners land on their fore- or mid-foot, which better absorbs the impact that is normally concentrated on the runner’s heel. But, says Wilkinson, these benefits will only be felt by runners if they are doing it right.

Most major sporting brands now sell some variation on a barefoot running shoe – essentially a glove for the foot that prevents the wear and tear you might expect from running on varied surfaces, but that doesn’t provide any support or cushioning. Wilkinson is keen to point out that when he talks about barefoot running, he doesn’t mean running with these. So, what’s the difference?

“Sixty to seventy percent of ‘barefoot’ shoe-wearers still run in the same style as they did when they were wearing trainers,” he says. In other words, they are still hitting the ground with their heel first, this time with no cushioning to absorb that blow – and in fact, are putting themselves at a much higher risk of injury. A sense of friction on the sole, he says, is the trigger for the body to reduce the impact by switching to a fore- or mid-foot gait. Even with a few millimetres to protect the heel, this sensation can be lost, and runners unused to a mid-foot gait can revert to landing hard on the heel; this is why he says he stops barefoot running in winter “when it’s too cold to feel my feet”.

Wilkinson was in fact one of the two first people to complete the entire Great North Run without shoes in 2011, and is an enthusiastic proponent of this running style, though he cautions that transitioning from one running style to another should be done very gradually to avoid injury. He has good news though, for parents of would-be runners, or amateurs starting for the first time. In terms of biomechanics, there is no difference between top of the range “barefoot” shoes, and simple plimsolls, and starting out in either will naturally encourage a fore- or mid-foot running gait. “Buy basic shoes,” is his advice, and it might even be enough to get me on the roads.

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