Running Barefoot? Don’t Give Away Your Running Shoes Just Yet!

By Rick Morris

Running barefoot? Don’t give away your shoes just yet. I’ve been running barefoot for many years. I love it! I’m a card carrying member of the barefoot running club! I’m fully convinced that barefoot running will improve your running economy, injury resistance, strength and performance. But despite all that I am also convinced that we still need our running shoes; even those over engineered, super cushioned and highly supportive running shoes that have been getting a lot of recent bad press.

I have written many times concerning my rather negative opinion about the contribution of running shoes to the increase in running injuries and the decrease in running strength, but, unlike many others, I don’t think running shoes are the product of the devil. Yes, running shoes can have a negative impact but they can also still provide a valuable service to runners.

I think the problem lies with the concept of “fads” in general. Up until now barefoot running has been a valuable tool to improve your running strength, running economy, injury resistance, race performance and the pure joy of running. There was a balance between the positives and negatives of running shoes. Whenever something becomes a fad or the latest and greatest technique, the momentum of the fad sometimes causes thing to swing out of balance much like a pendulum on the upswing. I think that is what’s happening with running shoes.

Calling running shoes evil, ignoring the benefits of quality running shoes and moving strictly towards only barefoot running is the result of the massive amount of positive press that barefoot running is getting. That is really what caused the running shoe problem to begin with. A decade or more ago we were inundated with commercial information trumpeting the great benefits of highly cushioned and over supportive running shoes. Look what happened. The pendulum swung too far in the direction of supportive running shoes. We were looking for, and wearing, the most supportive shoes we could find because we were told that was the way to decrease injuries and improve performance. The actual result – our legs became weak. We became more susceptible to injuries and our performance levels decreased.  For a while things got back into balance with many runners using barefoot running properly to get both their muscles and stride back into shape. But now it’s swung too far in the opposite direction. So, don’t give away your running shoes just yet. You just might need them!

Here are just a few reasons for keeping your running shoes.

Learning Without Burning

I hate to write with an overused metaphor but Rome wasn’t built in a day. If you are new to barefoot running you really need to gradually work your way into barefoot shape. The only ways to do that are either gradually adding in barefoot activity with the assistance of your current running shoes or progressively moving to shoes with less and less support until you are ready for barefoot running. The one constant in both methods is running shoes. You need the help of your running shoes during your barefoot training process and you will also need running shoes to give your feet a break even after you are a barefoot runner.

Trail Trotting

We don’t only run on cushy grass or sand surfaces. We aren’t always running on smooth debris free roads. Running on trails present some challenges that aren’t always compatible with barefoot running or even running in minimalist shoes. Good trail running shoes are usually  built with at least some lateral support and forefoot cushioning. There is a reason for that. Trails have rough terrain, uneven surfaces, small rocks, big rock, sharp rocks, roots, mud, loose stone and any number of other running hazards. The lateral support and cushioning in trail running shoes are there to help stabilize your feet on those types of surfaces and help prevent falls, ankle sprains, knee sprains, plantar fascia injuries, toe injuries and in cold weather cases, even frost bite. Yep, I know there have been many recent books touting the benefits of barefoot trail running, but ask yourself one question – Is it worth the risk? Well – is it?

Righteous Rehab

Even the strongest and most highly trained runners suffer from occasional running injuries. Those injuries require rehabilitation. In many of my own barefoot running writings I compare running shoes to wearing a cast on your feet because of the stability factor of many styles of running shoes. If you are in a healthy state that stability can be a negative factor because it doesn’t let your feet work properly and your muscles become weak. Well, there are times when you want that cast like effect. There are times when you want your muscles immobilized or at least supported. That time is during rehabilitation. When you are trying to heal injured or overused muscles and tendons you need that support. Running shoes will give you that support and get you back to barefoot running sooner than later.

Cold Control

I live in Colorado and I see a lot of tough runners. Runners that are tougher than I am. I say that because when the weather turns frigid you’ll see me bundled up in numerous layers while I see some other runners in shorts and a tank top. No matter how tough you are you need to be careful to avoid cold weather injuries when you run. You may be able to get away with shorts in some cold weather situations but don’t even think about running barefoot when the weather is freezing. When you run in the cold more of your blood is shunted away from your extremities and into your core as your body attempts to maintain proper core body temperature. That puts your feet at elevated risk of frost bite in cold weather conditions. So keep those running shoes on to keep your feet warm, toasty and safe.