Is barefoot running better for you?


Tood Wheeler, of Navarre, Fla., runs the the 38th Marine Corps Marathon barefoot on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

In light of the kerfuffle over Vibram's FiveFingers running shoe, one very important question remains: Is barefoot running, or running in the company's strange-looking minimalist footwear, better for you?

I hate to answer a question with a question, but in this case I have to: Better than what?

Thirty to 70 percent of runners suffer some kind of repetitive stress injury every year. For some people, the injuries are so severe, or so chronic, that they are forced to give up running entirely. There's a lot of conflicting and inconclusive research out there, but for folks like that who still want to run, the answer is probably: Give it a try.

For everyone else, probably not.

When the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit that encourages physical fitness, enlisted a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin to study the Vibram FiveFingers Bikila in 2011, it concluded: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

"If you aren’t experiencing chronic injuries while running, don’t quit with your shoes just yet," the organization said in a lengthy article in its newsletter. "Going barefoot or wearing Vibrams will affect which muscles are used and how you use them, all the way up the kinetic chain...And the results of those changes are uncertain."

Here's why: Only half of the 16 runners studied were able to make the transition from the traditional heel-striking running style to a forefoot-striking style. If you run in the barely-padded Vibrams, or barefoot, and bring the huge forces of running down on your unprotected heel, it's going to hurt, a lot. And you may end up injuring yourself worse. (Not to mention that the Bikilas -- named for the famed Ethiopian distance runner Abebe Bikila, who won an Olympic gold medal in the marathon running barefoot -- will set you back $90.)

Or as Daniel Lieberman, the Harvard evolutionary biologist in the forefront (forefoot?) of the barefoot running movement, put it in a 2012 review of the research at the time: "How one runs probably is more important than what is on one’s feet, but what is on one’s feet may affect how one runs."

If you missed the legal case that has riled up the running world -- and many others who think the Vibrams are just plain ugly -- the company has moved to settle a class action lawsuit that accused it of making health claims about the shoes that it can't back up. Vibram has agreed to set aside $3.75 million for refunds to everyone who bought a pair after March 2009, though it admits no wrongdoing.

This should please the American Podiatric Medical Association, which put out a statement on Thursday reiterating its position on barefoot running:

While anecdotal evidence and testimonials proliferate on the Internet and in the media about the possible health benefits of barefoot running, research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long-term effects of this practice.

Barefoot running has been touted as improving strength and balance, while promoting a more natural running style. However, risks of barefoot running include a lack of protection, which may lead to injuries such as puncture wounds, and increased stress on the lower extremities.

On the other hand, it's hard to ignore the passion of people like Bud Uyeda of Fairfax, Va., who told me in 2012: "“I have an old knee injury that gets aggravated...I would not be running if I were not running barefoot."

So give barefoot running a shot if your options are dwindling. Otherwise, I'd run a mile in your same old shoes.

Read more: Vibram to pay refunds to buyers of its FiveFingers running shoe.

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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