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“Barefoot shoes” walking and running; is it a non-risk activity?

The footwear industry has previously promoted hiking boots and running shoes offering cushioning, support and protection from injury but recently we have seen the popularisation of the concept of “barefoot shoes”. Once again, a shoe is promoted as a way of preventing injury. But instead of the shoe protecting us from abnormal forces, we are offered flimsy shoes that are supposed to promote natural function of the foot. Why the sudden change of direction?

 The reasons lie in the research fields of biomechanics and human evolutionary theory. To understand what has happened it is necessary to understand the historical development of gait analysis and the quest to understand the evolution of modern human anatomy. Analysis of human gait started in the late 19th century with the development of cinematography. Things changed significantly in the latter part of the 20th century with the introduction of force plates that measure peak vertical forces. This gave us accurate quantitative data on human movement for the first time.

These force plates identified that some people generate very high forces when they impact the ground. A presumption was made that too high an impact force must cause injury. Despite no evidence clearly linking high impact to injury, the next 30 years of sport shoe design was primarily driven at creating the ultimate cushioning shoe. We have seen every type of cushioning material added to running shoes, with this technology also spinning off into the comfort and activity shoe market. As technologies were developed to measure other aspects of gait (such as pressure under the foot and segmental motion of the foot and leg) other views on injury development have taken precedence over impact.  Probably the most common motion associated with injury has been excessive pronation. This resulted in motion control shoes and a huge growth in supportive insoles.  

More recently it has been discovered that: cushioning shoe wear causes atrophy of certain balance-promoting nerve endings in the foot; forefoot impact creates less force; and barefoot running promotes forefoot impact. Although still debated, much of human anatomy makes little sense without regular endurance running as a feature of our evolutionary history. It appears we are constructed for barefoot running with a forefoot strike and as we are not born with shoes on our feet, we should also walk barefoot. There is actually much to condone barefoot approach in running because trainers seem to encourage a lot of people to impact on their heels, which appears to be un-natural.

Despite this, there could be potential problems to barefoot running which relates to how we form as individuals. There has been a vast over inflation in the role of genes in how we develop. Although genes code for the proteins that make us, our environment has a much bigger role in the actual shaping of our bodies. Only 100,000 years ago the bones of the feet of Homo sapiens were different from today.  45,000 years ago, the human foot starts to show signs of a reduction in robusticity of the toes; just about the time that its suspected humans start to use supportive footwear. In the last 100 years the British have spent more time in supportive and fashion shoes while walking on hard flat surfaces. Most of us in the last 30 years have taken sedentary occupations. This will have had consequences to the strength and flexibility in our legs and feet. We have adapted and developed to the shod, flat, urban environment.

So what happens if we suddenly use no shoe at all or a shoe that pretty much leaves us to our own devices? The answer is probably different things will happen to different people depending on how little your foot has to do to adapt to the increase in strain that this environmental shift brings. The less your foot has developed to conform to the urbanised environment the fewer problems you may suffer. The younger you are and the more gradual your introduction to these flimsy shoes the less risk there is that you may develop problems and the more likely you’ll benefit. These shoes create a new environment as yet largely untested on the modern urban foot. How an urban foot behaves protected from true barefoot situation by these “barefoot” shoes, when it is still too sensitive to cope walking down a gravel path, is not fully clear. We have used minimally protective footwear in our past, and shod childhood during our development and growth is only a recent phenomenon. Although the concept of going barefoot is theoretically correct, putting a generation of urban feet adjusted to supportive shoes out on the hills in shoes with no more protection than slippers could potentially cause a lot of injuries. A very careful and gradual introduction of this sort of footwear to your life would be wise, and some people may not tolerate the change.

Article courtesy of : Andy Horwood, M.Pod.A, D.Pod.M

Product Designer for Healthystep Footbeds, Musculoskeletal Podiatrist & Honorary Visiting Fellow Staffordshire University.