As far as hot-button topics among athletes and medical experts go, barefoot running is as contentious as they come, either improving your performance or increasing the risk of injury. In the wake of Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book, Born To Run, the shoeless craze might come off as just another passing hippie fad. Then again, the athletic shoe wasn’t invented until the 1970s, which means that for most of human evolutionary history, people ran barefoot or with minimal footwear like sandals or moccasins. Does that mean we’re conditioned to pound the pavement au naturel? Well yes and no, says Stuart Warden, director of physical-therapy research at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who tackled the subject earlier this month at the American College of Sports Medicine meeting in Denver.

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RUNNING WILD

At the symposium “Barefoot Running: So Easy, a Caveman Did It,” Warden cautioned that going shoeless can increase or decrease the risk of running-related injuries, depending on whether you grew up wearing fancy athletic trainers or not. “The heel cushions and arch supports within modern shoes have made our feet weaker,” Warden says. “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.”

Going shoeless can increase the risk of running-related injuries if you grew up wearing trainers.

It’s true that our shoes shape the way we move, according to a recent review in The Journal of Foot and Ankle Research. Not only do young children in shoes have longer strides than when they’re barefoot, note the researchers, but they also land with more force on their heels.

BACK TO BASICS

Daniel E. Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, penned a study in the journal Nature last year on the differing biomechanics of shoe-bound versus barefoot runners in the United States and Kenya. Barefoot runners, he found, experience less impact because they strike the ground with the balls of their feet first, rather than their heels, which increases collision shock and stress fractures.

Throwing away your shoes doesn’t magically give you proper barefoot-running form.

In other words, being one with nature is better for the body in theory, but only if your feet haven’t adapted to the cushy interior of a well-padded sneaker. Throwing away your shoes doesn’t magically give you proper barefoot-running form. “Running barefoot or in minimal shoes is fun but uses different muscles,” says Lieberman. “If you’ve been a heel-striker all your life you have to transition slowly to build strength in your calf and foot muscles.”

IUPUI’s Warden advises aspiring barefoot runners to make the transition slowly correctly, so you decrease the risk of injury over the long-term. If you’re a recreational runner who suffers few injuries in shoes, there’s no reason to ditch. “There is no point in changing something that is not broken,” Warden says.