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Are shoes that simulate barefoot running safe?

Some people point to the fact that many groups of people in history have run incredible distances successfully for centuries with no or minimal shoes as proof that we were meant to run without the added support of modern running shoes. The only problem with this theory is that in the U.S. we have grown up wearing shoes. We wear them to school, to work, and through most of the winter, and our feet become accustomed to them. If we wore sandals throughout the year it might be a different. 

Much of the problem with switching to barefoot, or minimalist, running is that most of our feet aren’t ready for it. Many people jump into it too fast and get into trouble with tendonitis, strains, skin problems, and plantar fasciitis. This transition needs to be done slowly. Most of the injuries we are seeing with barefoot runners are related to switching too quickly. Walk barefoot first, then only running a mile or so barefoot initially and gradually increasing thereafter. Gradually progressing your running surface is also a good idea (grass to dirt to road). This transition can take more than a month to allow the muscles of the lower leg and foot to grow stronger and to build up the callous needed. Strengthening exercises are also a good idea. 

In the end, there are still some people for whom barefoot/minimalist running is not going to work. These may include over-pronators or people with plantar fasciitis.

Training in shoes that simulate barefoot running has had a lot of attention lately.  Barefoot running (or running in shoes that simulate barefoot running) can have a lot of benefits.  It can help prevent such a dramatic impact on your body with each stride.  Yes, the same amount of weight comes down, but the weight is more dispersed and not so jolting on the joints.  This is because you aren't landing on your heel but more on your forefoot or mid-foot.  This, in turn, can be a great measure in preventing injury.  Also, the shoes, can protect your feet from rocks, abrasive surfaces, and offer slight protection from extreme temperatures - but very little protection in that arena, so take caution.

Also, the transition time from padded shoes to barefoot running takes time!! If you try to rush it, an injury is almost guaranteed. Think of it like your foot was broken and you were wearing a cast for up to 6 months.  Once the cast is removed, your muscles, ligaments, bones, and tendons will all be very weak.  It takes time to strengthen them.  So, start lightly with no more than 5-10 minutes, in the beginning.  And it would be better if you started on a soft surface such as grass or the turf at your local track.  The transition can take anywhere from 3-5 months.

So, yes, it can be safe.  Just take precautions when making the transition and know that there is not a lot of protection for your toes when it's really cold.

Good question. Lately "five-fingered" shoes have become a craze. The idea is that they help you attain better running form because it feels like you are running barefoot. While they may improve your form, there are other factors to be aware of.

Humans evolved to run on dirt, not pavement, and running barefoot or with "barefoot" shoes is quite hard on your body. We know that running barefoot on hard surfaces causes anemia because the impact can actually pop your red blood cells. Dr. Michael Smatt, New York Chiropractor, says that you should "never run on pavement," even in standard padded running shoes because the impact puts stress on the spine. 

For this reason, I recommend against using barefoot shoes unless you are running on very soft surfaces like dirt trails. As a runner and former collegiate athlete, I run in "trainers" or padded shoes. If you want to improve your running form, there are other "low profile" shoes that still have some padding that can help you. Of course track spikes are very much like running barefoot, but it is best to save those for races, not training. 

In short, don't ever wear barefoot shoes on pavement. 

In the end it is up to you.
Barefoot running and shoes that simulate barefoot running can be safe when used appropriately. For many people, barefoot running is not recommended because of the biomechanics of the foot, individual foot strength, and running technique. Typically, barefoot running is used to supplement a runner’s normal training regiment to increase foot strength. Some dangers to barefoot running include running on hot concrete and burning the bottom of the feet, debris in the road that could puncture the skin, as well as taking away support for those runners that need it. For individuals looking to increase speed, while barefoot running has the potential to make you faster, wearing a light weight shoe will allow the same benefit while protecting the feet. Biomechanically efficient runners are more likely to not endure biomechanical injuries when running barefoot. If a runner were to add barefoot running to their training, they should gradually add it into the routine. Although it is not recommended for most individuals to run long distance in them, there have been many elite athletes that have completed marathons barefoot, but in your mind, the benefits need to outweigh the potential for injury.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.