By Dr. Mercola
While still in the vast minority, an increasing number of people are joining the barefoot running trend, throwing their shoes to the wind and letting their feet run free, literally.
In the modern world, it might sound "extreme" to give up your shoes, particularly when engaging in an activity as hard on your feet as running, but surrounding your feet with thick cushioning and stiff supports is actually the "new" trend, evolutionarily speaking.
Humans Went Without Running Shoes for Millions of Years
Writing in the journal Nature, Harvard researchers explained:1
"Humans have engaged in endurance running for millions of years, but the modern running shoe was not invented until the 1970s. For most of human evolutionary history, runners were either barefoot or wore minimal footwear such as sandals or moccasins with smaller heels and little cushioning relative to modern running shoes."
Let's face it, your feet were designed to work without shoes. And while running barefoot does pose certain unique hazards, such as stepping on a sharp object or injuring your skin on abrasive pavement, there are reports that barefoot running is actually quite beneficial.
While the research is still limited and many of the reports anecdotal, running barefoot may actually decrease the likelihood of ankle sprains and chronic injuries.
Shoes Alter Your Gait, but is This Good or Bad?
Walking or running with shoes is quite a different experience than doing so without them. This is evidenced perhaps no more clearly than among children, who in the developed world are virtually the only ones who have not yet grown accustomed to wearing shoes, and as such their gait should be more or less the way nature intended.
Indeed, research published in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research revealed:2
"Shoes affect the gait of children. With shoes, children walk faster by taking longer steps with greater ankle and knee motion and increased tibialis anterior activity. Shoes reduce foot motion and increase the support phases of the gait cycle.
During running, shoes reduce swing phase leg speed, attenuate some shock and encourage a rearfoot strike pattern. The long-term effect of these changes on growth and development are currently unknown."
And therein lies the question: is footwear a boon or a bust to mankind? Surprising as it may sound, emerging research suggests modern running shoes, with their heavily cushioned, elevated heels, may actually encourage runners to strike the ground with their heel first,
A move that generates a greater collision force with the ground, leading to an increased potential for injury. The Harvard researchers continued in Nature:
"Here we show that habitually barefoot endurance runners often land on the fore-foot (fore-foot strike) before bringing down the heel, but they sometimes land with a flat foot (mid-foot strike) or, less often, on the heel (rear-foot strike). In contrast, habitually shod runners mostly rear-foot strike, facilitated by the elevated and cushioned heel of the modern running shoe.
Kinematic and kinetic analyses show that even on hard surfaces, barefoot runners who fore-foot strike generate smaller collision forces than shod rear-foot strikers.
This difference results primarily from a more plantarflexed foot at landing and more ankle compliance during impact, decreasing the effective mass of the body that collides with the ground. Fore-foot- and mid-foot-strike gaits were probably more common when humans ran barefoot or in minimal shoes, and may protect the feet and lower limbs from some of the impact-related injuries now experienced by a high percentage of runners."
This may explain how marathon runners in Kenya are able to run great distances barefoot with virtually no pain or injuries. Likewise, research reviewed by Michael Warburton, a physical therapist in Australia, revealed:3
- Running-related chronic injuries to bone and connective tissue in the legs are rare in developing countries, where most people are habitually barefooted
- Where barefoot and shod populations co-exist, as in Haiti, injury rates of the lower extremity are substantially higher in the shod population
- Wearing footwear actually increases the likelihood of ankle sprains, one of the most common sports injuries, because it either decreases your awareness of foot position or increases the twisting torque on your ankle during a stumble
- One of the most common chronic injuries in runners, planter fasciitis (an inflammation of the ligament running along the sole of your foot), is rare in barefoot populations
- Running in bare feet reduces oxygen consumption by a few percent
Grounding: The Overlooked Benefit of Going Barefoot
While much of the debate between the barefoot and the shoed-foot focuses on the potential for injury, another often overlooked aspect is grounding. The technique of grounding, also known as earthing, is simple: you walk barefoot to "ground" with the Earth. The scientific theory behind the health benefits seen from this simple practice is that your body absorbs negative electrons from the Earth through the soles of your feet.
The Earth is negatively charged, so when you ground, you're connecting your body to a negatively charged supply of energy. And since the Earth has a greater negative charge than your body, you end up absorbing electrons from it. The grounding effect is, in my understanding, one of the most potent antioxidants we know of and may have an anti-inflammatory effect on your body. As written in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine:4
"It is well established, though not widely known, that the surface of the earth possesses a limitless and continuously renewed supply of free or mobile electrons as a consequence of a global atmospheric electron circuit. Wearing shoes with insulating soles and/or sleeping in beds that are isolated from the electrical ground plane of the earth have disconnected most people from the earth's electrical rhythms and free electrons.
… A previous study demonstrated that connecting the human body to the earth during sleep (earthing) normalizes the daily cortisol rhythm and improves sleep. A variety of other benefits were reported, including reductions in pain and inflammation. Subsequent studies have confirmed these earlier findings and documented virtually immediate physiologic and clinical effects of grounding or earthing the body."
Unfortunately, few people ever walk barefoot anymore to experience the benefits of grounding. But it is very plausible that some of the people who have converted to barefoot running are experiencing benefits not only from the lack of shoes, but also from the increased connection to the Earth.
Walking Barefoot Is a Valuable Aspect of a Healthy Lifestyle
Exercising barefoot outdoors is one of the most wonderful, inexpensive and powerful ways of incorporating Earthing into your daily life and will also help speed up tissue repair, as well as easing the muscle pain you sometimes get from strenuous exercise. A review of the available research, published January 2012 in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health, agrees with the concept of reaping health benefits when connecting to the earth5. According to the authors:
"Mounting evidence suggests that the Earth's negative potential can create a stable internal bioelectrical environment for the normal functioning of all body systems. Moreover, oscillations of the intensity of the Earth's potential may be important for setting the biological clocks regulating diurnal body rhythms, such as cortisol secretion.
It is also well established that electrons from antioxidant molecules neutralize reactive oxygen species (ROS, or in popular terms, free radicals) involved in the body's immune and inflammatory responses. The National Library of Medicine's online resource PubMed lists 7021 studies and 522 review articles from a search of 'antioxidant + electron + free radical.' It is assumed that the influx of free electrons absorbed into the body through direct contact with the Earth likely neutralize ROS and thereby reduce acute and chronic inflammation.
Throughout history, humans mostly walked barefoot or with footwear made of animal skins. They slept on the ground or on skins. Through direct contact or through perspiration-moistened animal skins used as footwear or sleeping mats, the ground's abundant free electrons were able to enter the body, which is electrically conductive. Through this mechanism, every part of the body could equilibrate with the electrical potential of the Earth, thereby stabilizing the electrical environment of all organs, tissues, and cells.
Modern lifestyle has increasingly separated humans from the primordial flow of Earth's electrons. For example, since the 1960s, we have increasingly worn insulating rubber or plastic soled shoes, instead of the traditional leather fashioned from hides. Rossi has lamented that the use of insulating materials in post-World War II shoes has separated us from the Earth's energy field. Obviously, we no longer sleep on the ground as we did in times past.
During recent decades, chronic illness, immune disorders, and inflammatory diseases have increased dramatically, and some researchers have cited environmental factors as the cause. However, the possibility of modern disconnection with the Earth's surface as a cause has not been considered. Much of the research reviewed in this paper points in that direction."
When indoors, using a grounding pad or sheet is an excellent way to lower your risk for cardiovascular disease and other problems, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis.
Before You Take Off Your Shoes…
Just taking off your shoes, if you've been wearing them all your life, does not mean you'll immediately attain proper barefoot running form. Many new barefoot runners continue to land heavily on their heels -- and the result can be injury. So if you decide to give barefoot running a try, make sure you do it slowly, progressing gradually to more and more time spent without shoes. A good starting point is to first try walking barefoot and then begin with quarter-mile barefoot runs.
Keep in mind also that your gait will be different than it is with your shoes on -- this is expected. Listen to your body and try to tune in to your innate knowledge of how to run and walk barefoot, and allow your feet, ankles, knees and hips to naturally change position in response to the terrain.
When you start going barefoot it is best to initiate on naturally softer ground like grass, dirt paths and sand, not cement, asphalt or hardwood. When the muscles and joints of your foot become more stable and the skin on the bottom of your feet thickens, you will be able to handle progressively more time barefoot and on a wider variety of surfaces.
While there are a growing number of minimalist footwear options now on the market that are designed to simulate barefoot running, some argue that these shoes are merely marketing ploys, and in fact still change your gait from the way nature intended. Personally, I have tried one version that I liked very much and would recommend highly, although since I traded in running for Peak Fitness, I haven't actually used them for runs.
One final note, barefoot running or walking doesn't have to be an "all or nothing" decision. You can incorporate as much barefoot time into your life as you feel comfortable with. Quite possibly, you'll enjoy it so much that you will naturally find yourself kicking off your shoes as much as possible.