Barefoot running has been all the rage in recent years (it's the trend to blame for those toe-defining, sock-like athletic shoes you're seeing on feet these days). However, a recent University of Kansas study suggests that runners (especially experienced ones) who want to ditch their traditional kicks for more minimalist sneakers should proceed with caution.
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The risks of running in minimalist shoes
In the study, people over the age of 30 with 10 or more years of running experience jumped on the treadmill in their normal running shoes, barefoot, and in minimalist sneakers. While we tend to hit the ground heel-first when we run, that's a no-no in minimalist shoes, since they provide less cushion in the heel—and thus less protection to the foot—than do old-fashioned trainers. (Our bare feet offer even less.) But researchers found that a significant number of subjects ran with a consistent heel strike when in minimalist shoes or barefoot, putting them at risk of injury—particularly stress fractures. That's different from adolescent runners, who, other research has shown, tend to adapt more quickly to minimalist sneaks by touching down with their forefoot or midfoot instead.
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“The initial force from a heel strike is much higher than a forefoot or midfoot strike,” lead study author Scott Mullen, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at The University of Kansas Hospital, explained to Health. “At the highest speeds, older runners ran with a persistent heel strike 43 percent of the time, which is very different from the adolescent runners, and this is what puts them at higher risk of injury.”
So you still want to go 'barefoot'?
If you still want to give minimalist or barefoot running a try, Dr. Mullen’s advice: In the beginning, wear minimalist shoes only for speed sessions or intervals. If you don't notice any pain after several weeks, start to sub them in for your regular runners from time to time, and make sure to ease off if your feet or legs begin to hurt.