If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about barefoot running. Maybe you’ve read some articles about it, or maybe you’ve seen someone running around in a pair of weird looking shoes with toes.

So, what’s the big deal? Why is it so popular to run barefoot or in minimalist footwear? Is there any science behind this trend?

Early History of Barefoot Running

Obviously, before shoes were invented, barefoot running was the only type of running, so it’s not a new idea. Throughout most of human history, running was performed while barefoot or in thin-soled shoes such as moccasins. This practice continues today in places such as Kenya and among the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico. It’s likely that the runners of Ancient Greece ran barefoot. According to legend, Pheidippides, the first marathoner, ran from Athens to Sparta in less than 36 hours. After the Battle of Marathon, it is said he ran straight from the battlefield to Athens to inform the Athenians of the Greek victory over Persia.

History of Running Shoes

Running shoes are a surprisingly a recent invention.  The first running shoes showed up about 200 years ago with an increased interest in running in 18th century England. The first running shoes were made of leather, which has the side effect of stretching when wet.

In 1832 Wait Webster patented a process whereby rubber soles could be attached to leather shoes. This led to the creation of Plimsolls, which were popular as children’s shoes. Twenty years later, in 1852 Joseph William Foster (the founder of the company now known as Reebok) had a revelation and decided to add spikes to the bottom of the Plimsolls and created what we would now recognise as running spikes.

The next development was vulcanisation, which revolutionised shoe manufacturing and made it possible to create lightweight, quiet, and flexible shoes. This lead to the creation of Keds in 1892. Keds were canvas and rubber shoes made by the tyre manufacturer Goodyear. After some time on the market, in 1917 Goodyear realised that their shoes would be good for running and started to advertise Keds as an athletic shoe. They became known as sneakers, as due to the rubber sole, they could ‘sneak’ around silently.

Adolf Dassler began making shoes in 1920. He is considered to be the father of the modern running shoe. His designs each had a special hand forged set of running spikes and were made for specific running distances. This was the first time shoes were designed for specific running styles and distances. By 1936 his shoes were internationally renowned and were worn by athletes such as Jesse Owens. In 1948 he founded a company called Addas which was split into Addas (later to be known as Adidas) and Puma. In 1949 Dassler added three side strips to provide support to his shoes.

On the other side of the world a new era of sportswear manufacturing began in 1949, when Mr. Onitsuka started Onitsuka Co. Ltd. After World War II Japan had a huge number of homeless children he wondered what he could do to give them a better future. This was the beginning of ASICS.

Phil Knight, a business major at the University of Oregon and a miler on the track team was unsatisfied with the running shoes that were available. In the early 1960′s he and his coach Bill Bowerman decided to form a company to market a shoe designed by Bowerman. It was lightweight and comfortable in a variety of running conditions. Bowerman and Knight did the marketing in person, travelling the country to track meets selling their running shoes and becoming increasingly successful and well known within the running community. The shoes were known as Tiger Shoes and their defining feature was a cushion heel wedge of Bowerman’s design. The company, was called Blue Ribbon Sports, but became known as Nike, named after the Greek goddess of victory.

During the 1970s running shoes were not just designed based on the type of running the person did, but also the athlete’s running style. These included neutral runners, and runners with supination and pronation. The final major development that running shoes received during the 1970s was the use of ethylene vinyl acetate, also referred to as EVA. This foam added to the sole of a running shoe provided runners with extra cushion and shock absorption.

Modern Barefoot Running

Barefoot running has gained a small but significant following on the fringe of the running community in recent years. The practice saw a surge in popularity after the 2009 publication of Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, which promoted the practice. In the United States, the Barefoot Runners Society was founded in November 2009. By November 2010, the organisation had 1,345 members, nearly double the previous year.

Barefoot runners argue that recent developments in running shoe design have been causing runners injuries. From an evolutionary perspective, it seems obvious. Human beings are well suited for endurance sports like running, and we certainly haven’t had cushioned running shoes throughout our evolutionary history history.

Biomechanically, our feet are great at handling the stress of running for prolonged periods without support or cushioning. Feet come equipped with a complex array of muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones, which work together to absorb the shock of the foot strike. Sometimes, when an athlete wears a highly-cushioned or supportive running shoe, it can inhibit the foot mechanics and stop the foot from pronating and supinating the way that it should, which may lead to weakening of the intrinsic muscles of the foot.

It can also lead to over-striding or excessive heel striking. This can result in decreased efficiency. It can also result in increased force being absorbed with each step, and increased risk of injury.

Running barefoot leads to decreased torque on the hip and knee, shorter step length, increased mid-to-forefoot strike if you’re landing too hard on your heel, and decreased impact peak on landing. Natural running is a good option if you’re prone to shin splints, knee pain, or bone-related or stress-related injuries.

The Science

Scientific research into the practice of running barefoot has not reached a clear consensus regarding its risks or its benefits. While footwear might provide protection from cuts, bruises, impact and weather, proponents argue that running barefoot reduces the risk of chronic injuries (notably repetitive stress injuries) caused by heel striking in padded running shoes.

The barefoot movement has prompted some manufacturers to introduce thin-soled and flexible shoes such as traditional moccasins and huaraches for minimalist running.

There hasn’t been a huge amount of compelling research, and nothing particularly conclusive.  The latest findings seem to suggest that footwear has very little impact on performance or injury prevention.