Is it Safe to Go Barefoot During Triathlon Transitions?

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When you're training for a triathlon, there's so much focus on each of the three race legs: the 1.5K swim, 40K bike and 10K run. But once you get serious about training, you also know how important your transition times become. In fact, how you perform in the transitions could determine your overall showing in the competition. It's tempting to go barefoot during the triathlon transition from bike to swim, but is it safe?

Because of this fact, many triathletes will make unusual moves in order to speed up their transition times. Do you want to know the practice I find most concerning? It comes right after the swim portion of the triathlon, in transition to the biking event. At this point, many triathletes reach land, slap on their helmets, and run barefoot to their bikes (where their cycling shoes are already clipped into the pedals.)  

If you've thought about this move, this is how it would go: once you hit the mount line,  you'll jump onto your bikes, and start pedaling with your feet on top of your shoes. And you'll stay barefoot until you have enough speed and momentum to slide one foot and the other into your shoes without sacrificing speed. 

Now, I can't dispute the fact that this move shaves time off your transitions. But, aside from my real concern that you'll fall off your bike while trying to get your shoes on, risking a fracture injury, I'm also worried about what barefoot running will mean for your foot health, and for your ability to complete the remaining legs of your triathlon. Let's take a closer look. 

Is Barefoot Running Ever Safe? 

For years now, we’ve been debating whether minimalist or maximalist running is ideal. In the ‘minimalist’ track, there are runners who are training on asphalt and concrete, and even competing in road races. Proponents of barefoot running include marathoners and triathletes who find that they have more stability and fewer injuries when running barefoot than they experience while running in shoes.   A lot of debate goes into the safest choice of running shoes: minimalist or maximalist. But, like baby bear, I always think right in the middle is best!

Maximalist runners, on the other hand, swear that super-padded sneakers make them feel like they’re running on pillows. They experience less of the road’s impact, and assume that means they will be less susceptible to impact-injuries. Even so, studies suggest that maximalist running changes your gait, making you more susceptible to injuries. That can’t earn a gold-star recommendation from me as a podiatrist, either.  So, the only thing left to do is take a closer look.

 

 Who Can Safely Try Barefoot Running? 

If running barefoot intrigues you, should you give it a try? Well anything in moderation can't hurt. First of all, take note of the weight guidelines laid out in the Australian study. After that, my recommendation is to give it a try on a controlled surface, such as a rubberized track, and see how you do. Barefoot runners will say that such a surface is not good and a smooth concrete surface is best. I respectfully disagree. Running barefoot will provide a very significant change in mechanics, so you need to ease into it. Running your regular workout in shoes one day and barefoot the next will expose you to injury.

There are those, however, who should not even attempt barefoot running. People with diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, or other medical conditions that result in a numbness of the feet or a decreased immune system, should not run barefoot under any circumstances. The inability of a runner to acutely feel their surface will open them up to injury, as well as the added danger of stepping on a sharp object and not feeling it. This can lead to infection and puts the limb in danger.
 

Runners who have very significant mechanical issues or deformity, such as previous foot surgery on bones, clubfoot, injury to tendons, or even extremely flat or high-arched feet should exercise extreme caution if attempting barefoot running. Serious barefoot runners may disagree, but the mechanical imbalance in such feet will be exacerbated in barefoot running.

A more obvious concern with barefoot running comes with various surfaces. A looser gravel surface will run the risk of a more focal issue on your foot. A trail will have a surface of twigs and sharp rocks that can cut and imbed themselves in the foot. Even a safer and more even surface can have errant rocks and broken glass that may not be seen. Any place that you run or walk barefoot must be examined well to avoid such hazards.

As with any new activity, one should proceed in a slow and cautious way. In something as comparatively extreme as barefoot running, caution must be exercised.

Do I Need Shoes for my Triathlon Transitions?

Now that we've explored some of the potential pitfalls of barefoot running, for any period of time, let's get back to the question of triathlon transitions. If you plan to run barefoot when transition from the swim to bike portion of your race, at least consider the surface on which you'll be competing. If it's a smooth, concrete road, you're unlikely to run into problems, given the relatively short amount of time you'll spend barefoot. If, however, your swim to bike transition takes place on a wooded trail or gravel path, consider slipping on your bike shoes as soon as you exit the water. Yes, this may cost you precious seconds, but it could also spare you serious foot problems that could pull you out of the race completely. 

 

Dr. Andrew Schneider
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A podiatrist and foot surgeon in Houston, TX.