A researcher at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis has said that barefoot running reduces risk of injury except under certain conditions- if you land on your heels or if you grew up running in standard athletic shoes.
The feet of runners land differently, depending on whether one is running in bare feet or in athletic shoes with a big cushion under the heel.
Runners who suffer repeated running-related injuries and can't overcome them through rehabilitation may want to consider switching to barefoot running, said Stuart Warden, associate professor and director of research in the Department of Physical Therapy at the Indianapolis University.
He said for those who wish to switch from wearing shoes to running barefoot, there is more to do than throwing away their sneakers. Otherwise, the risk of injury could increase.
"The heel cushions and arch supports within modern shoes have made our feet weaker," he said.
"The foot has so much support in these shoes that the muscles don't need to work as much as they would otherwise and have grown weaker. If you transition to barefoot running slowly and run correctly, so you build up to it, you could decrease the risk of injury over the long term," said Warden.
Athletic shoes, with a big cushion under the heel, encourage the runner to strike the ground with heels first. The shoes also place the foot in a down position that makes it difficult to comfortably land on the front part of the foot.
While Barefoot running encourages the runner to land on the forefoot or balls of the feet. Barefoot runners could land on their heels, if they chose to, but it would be painful, Warden noted.
When the heel strikes the ground in a shoe, there is an impact force that course up through the foot and into the body, he said.
The prevailing theory is that the impact force is related to stress fractures and other injuries associated with running. By decreasing those forces, the risk of injury is reduced.
When barefoot runners' feet land on the front or middle of the foot and the heel is lowered to the ground, the impact force is less and the risk of potential injury is lower, he noted.
Warden discussed his findings in a symposium on June 2 at the American College of Sports Medicine meeting in Denver.