The Barefoot Running Debate
From time to time an article appears about how we should all be running barefoot, often combined with comments about how sports shoe companies have been making running shoes that actually cause most of our injuries. This makes for a great headline but doesn't exactly give a balanced argument!
We weren't born with shoes on, so running barefoot has to be natural. Many people from Third World countries have no choice but to walk and run barefoot until they can afford otherwise. Unfortunately, if most people in the Western World started a programme of running training barefoot, they would get injured pretty quickly, especially when running on concrete. We wear footwear for a number of reasons, primarily to protect us from our environment e.g. extremes of temperature, sharp stones and other "debris", slippery or hard surfaces, etc. Most people wear shoes from a very early age and typically walk around on flat surfaces most of the time. We typically live a more sedentary lifestyle than we're designed for, which makes us less fit and often heavier than ideal. The lack of strength in our lower limbs and, in particular, our feet means that most of us need the extra support and cushioning that a running shoe gives us in order to run any sort of distance.
Any type of anatomical support has its uses in injury prevention and recovery. In the ideal world, we do exercises to strengthen the appropriate area so that a support isn't needed. This isn't always possible or convenient and this can lead to a greater dependence on the support to avoid further problems. In some ways, wearing shoes can be compared to the use of a support. Typical running trainers give the protection most of us need to cope with the surfaces we run on but they don't encourage the foot to function naturally, partly because they inhibit proprioception (the way the body gives feedback and adjusts effort during exercise). If you have been wearing shoes for most of your life, you can expect your feet to be structurally weak (partly explaining why so many of us over-pronate) and the skin on your soles won't be tough enough to deal with much, hence our dependence on running shoes.
That doesn't mean that most of us wouldn't benefit from at least some barefoot running, especially if you can find a nice clean area of grass or sand to run on. Progressive use of barefoot running should lead to stronger feet and reduced likelihood of some types of injury. In the longer term, this could allow fitter, lighter runners to do a significant amount of their running barefoot. There are also a number of footwear options to bridge the gap between wearing a regular running trainer and running barefoot. Technology is allowing running shoes to become lighter and have a lower profile while still giving enough cushioning and support that most of us still need e.g. Nike introduced the Free trainer, which is very light and flexible and is specifically designed to go some way to barefoot running and Vibram brought out 5 Fingers, now with specific running designs, which are essentially an outsole and an upper without the midsole, giving protection for the skin without the cushioning and support of a trainer. So, with a sensible approach, we can use barefoot running to improve technique and strength without getting injured!
See my update to this article