The barefoot running revolution has taken another stride across the Atlantic this week. Dr Mick Wilkinson, a barefoot runner himself and one of the first people to finish the Great North Run completely barefoot in 2011, told the attendees of the British Science Festival that he would advise anyone taking up running for the first time to run barefoot.
This is welcome news for barefoot running fans as most of those who choose to run barefoot, or even in minimalist shoes, still turn heads in the park or on the track and could really use some good scientific evidence in support of the idea, instead of the same old poor arguments.
Barefoot running has experienced a surge in popularity in the US over recent years thanks to a book called Born to Run and popularity is beginning to grow in the UK.
This advice from Dr Wilkinson came with the sensible caution that people should build up slowly to barefoot running, perhaps moving first on to very lightweight flat-soled flexible footwear while their feet become used to the practise. A sudden switch to barefoot running can cause a difference of an inch in your normal footfall from regular footwear.
The research carried out by Dr Wilkinson, a sport and exercise scientist at Northumbria University in Newcastle, found that while you need a gradual start you should begin barefoot running right on to a hard surface such as a running track, ignoring the instinct to sick to grassy softness.
Dr Wilkinson went on to warn that parents should steer clear of expensive trainers, saying that old-fashioned flat soled plimsoll shoes are preferable as they teach children to run in a more natural manner on the middle part of the foot. Once children learnt to run in fat bottomed shoes it’s a difficult habit to break as adults have to be weaned off them slowly.
The running shoe industry has grown substantially over the last few decades with companies spending vast amounts on researching ever more hi-tech trainers, but surprisingly levels of running injuries have not fallen.
The belief among barefoot running advocates is that the heavily cushioned heels of regular trainers are detrimental to people’s feet as the shape of the shoe causes us to hit the ground heel first, in what has come to be known as “heel striking”.
The reputation of barefoot runners in the US is not always a pleasant one, with general opinion being that they act superior, lording it over runners who choose to wear traditional training shoes. Hopefully this is one characteristic that will not make it across the pond as the movement grows.
While perhaps we will soon see the fall of the traditional inflated trainer, named as gaudy dinghies by Harry Mount in the Telegraph, don’t expect this change to happen over night (or even within the next generation).
The only realistic solution is that parents and schools recognise the benefits of unheeled sports shoes. If children are started on them early then perhaps they will be able to avoid developing the bad shoe habits that we as a society have sadly stepped into over the last century.