Fans of the barefoot-running movement might say that the risks of such minor mishaps as stepping on a pebble are more than made up for by the benefits of going au naturel from the ankle down. These benefits, proponents say, include increased speed and strength…better balance and proprioception (a sense of how your body is positioned in space)…and reduced risk for injury. But this trend has yet to receive scrutiny in large, well-designed scientific studies and thus does not have the blessing of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, according to podiatrist Jonathan D. Rose, DPM, coauthor of The Foot Book: A Complete Guide to Healthy Feet.
The small studies that have been done are contradictory. For instance, some research suggests that barefoot runners are more efficient (meaning that they use less oxygen) and can run faster unshod than when wearing shoes…but other research indicates that barefoot runners use more energy for each step and are at risk for lower-leg strains, calf pain and tendinitis, not to mention puncture wounds.
If you want to give it a whirl: Rather than going completely bare, Dr. Rose suggested trying the new minimalist shoes, which look like gloves for the feet. They are designed to simulate the barefoot experience while offering some barrier against sharp objects and burning-hot pavement. Start with slow, short runs and gradually increase your speed and distance to give foot and leg muscles a chance to adjust and to allow the soles time to toughen up. Remember, rather than taking long strides and striking the ground first with the heel (the way you would in a well-cushioned running shoe), when barefoot or wearing a minimalist shoe, the idea is to take short quick strides and land lightly on the forefoot, minimizing the force of the impact.