One of the primary reasons behind the barefoot running movement is the idea that bulky running shoes contribute to injuries. The argument is that running barefoot, or running with ultra minimalist shoes like the Vibram FiveFingers, prevents weakening of foot and ankle muscles caused by shoes that are too supportive.
Of course, running shoe aficionados argue that running without any support for the foot and ankle also leads to injury. Their position is that while barefoot (or almost barefoot, running might work for some people with great biomechanics, supportive shoes are necessary for those with less than perfect mechanics (i.e. pronators, supinators, etc.).
So the question for barefoot running is: Who’s right?
Well a recent study suggests that both camps might have some truth to their arguments. The study analyzed the biomechanics of thirty different runners who did sessions of barefoot running and shoed running. The authors compared the runners’ joint movements, knee forces, and achilles between footwear.
Barefoot and barefoot inspired footwear may serve to reduce the incidence of knee injuries in runners although corresponding increases in Achilles tendon loading may induce an injury risk at this tendon.
In other words, barefoot running may lessen the likelihood of knee injuries, but also may contribute to achilles problems. The reverse is true for supportive running shoes in that they may contribute to knee problems, but are less likely to contribute to achilles problems.
An important proviso for this study is that it merely analyzed the forces on specific areas of the body and theorized that such forces could lead to injury. It does not appear that the authors researched the actual prevalance of injuries in barefoot and shoed runners.
If nothing else, the study does emphasize the fact that there are no guarantees when choosing running footwear. Runners who experience a lot of injuries should get checked out by a podiatriatist or physical therapist to determine if there is an underlying cause for their problems.
The idea that injury issues will suddenly disappear by choosing a less supportive or more supportive shoe is simply incorrect.