They found that when the subjects were wearing shoes, the average pressure on their feet dispersed more evenly across the foot. Interestingly, when they were barefoot, the pressure was more localized towards the mid of the forefoot, traditionally known as the "ball" of the foot, and the heel (1).
Based on previous research, having more localized pressure in these areas of the foot has been related to an increased risk of stress injuries, suggesting that immediately switching to barefoot training could potentially increase the risk of developing pain or injury in the future (1, 2).
It must, however, be strongly noted that this study only tested two individuals for a very short amount of time. It's entirely possible that incorporating barefoot training sequentially over time would help avoid these injuries. Still, at the very least, this information shows us that barefoot exercise is not inherently a better choice the moment you start.
BAREFOOT RUNNING MAY PREVENT SOME INJURIES, BUT NOT OTHERS
A different study followed over 200 runners for one year with half being barefoot runners and half being runners wearing shoes. At the end of this period, the researchers observed the incidence of injury.
Interestingly, these researchers did find that when runners were barefoot, they experienced injuries more often in calf muscles than their shoed counterparts. However, it was noted that these barefoot runners displayed fewer injuries of the knee and hips (3)
This point is fascinating because in the previous study conducted by Shulte et al., their analysis reported an increase in forces around the knee and femur when wearing shoes, which could increase the risk of experiencing Patellofemoral (knee) Pain (1, 3).
These seemingly connected findings do suggest that running barefoot could reduce the potential of experiencing injury around the knee, which is indeed a significant consideration for many.
It is difficult to know if barefoot exercise and running must be used all of the time to limit this risk of injury or if occasionally incorporating it into a training routine could help shift running form towards reducing these injuries. Future, longer-term studies are needed to confirm, but at the very least, these findings are meaningful.
BAREFOOT TRAINING IMPROVES ANKLE STABILITY
While some evidence does suggest that barefoot training might change how our feet and joints experience pressure, some studies have looked at how barefoot training can influence ankle stability, which can play a role in preventing injury, especially for sports that rely on footwork and agility (1, 2, 3).
Researchers out of Stellenbosch University in South Africa exposed experienced netball players to eight weeks of barefoot training and observed how it influenced their agility and overall ankle stability.
Netball is a sport performed on a court, which has many similarities to basketball, requiring fast directional changes, which indeed can increase the risk of ankle-specific injuries.
For eight weeks, half of the athletes completed training specific to netball while barefoot, while the other half completed the same drills wearing their regular training shoes.
After the eight-week testing period, the subjects were retested on measures like 10 and 20-meter sprint performance, agility testing, and single-leg balance ability. These measures were then compared against their pre-test scores as well as the control group.
According to the findings, the athletes that trained barefoot showed significant improvements in directional agility and also showed improvements in balance and stability compared to the control group (4).
Based on these findings, it does appear that regularly incorporating barefoot training that matches the needs of the intended sport would be beneficial, mainly if the sport relies heavily on ankle stability and the need to change directions rapidly (4).
Summary: Based on some studies, it seems that regularly incorporating barefoot running and training into one’s routine can potentially reduce the risk of developing knee injuries while improving ankle stability. However, there isn’t an abundance of long-term data on this topic, requiring additional research (1-4).
BAREFOOT RESISTANCE TRAINING & ITS EFFECT ON FORCE