Is Barefoot Running a Good Thing?

There’s something romantic about running barefoot. It’s a minimalistic return to our roots; after all, man ran barefoot for millions of years. Modern running shoes, on the other hand, didn’t come about until the 1970s. But is running barefoot a good thing? Or a utopian pipe dream and recipe for disaster?

When I first started lifting, I used weight lifting gloves. While the gloves increased my grip strength, reduced callusing and provided additional wrist support, they do so at a price. Since the gloves are doing much of the work for you, your muscles don’t have to work as hard. In other words, they limit real gains in grip and forearm strength. For that reason, I stopped using weight lifting gloves.

Can the same logic be applied to running shoes? By running in shoes, are we limiting muscle development in our feet and ankles? As of yet, there’s not much data on the subject. But according to Craig Payne, DipPod, MPH, a senior lecturer in podiatry at Latrobe University in Melbourne, Australia, “[There is not] any evidence showing that running shoes weaken the muscles of the foot.”

Barefoot running does have one important efficiency working in its favor:

Oxygen consumption is typically 4% to 5% lower in barefoot running, which is attributed to factors including moving the shoes’ weight (energy demand increases about 1% for every 100g of additional mass on the foot), the bending resistance and friction of the sole, midsole energy absorption, and energy lost to metatarsophalangeal joint stiffness.

From the little data that does exist, any differences in running barefoot vs. with running shoes don’t translate to increases or decreases in reported injuries. Running-related injuries haven’t decreased with the development of modern running shoes, so it seems that footwear (or lack thereof) isn’t the largest determining factor in injury risk. Payne notes, “Barefoot running reduces heel strike and the impact associated with it, but there is not one piece of evidence that links high impacts to injury. The most common running injuries—patellofemoral pain syndrome and fasciitis—have nothing to do with impact.”

If you are looking to incorporate barefoot running into your program, know that most runners use it to add variety. It’s almost never the staple of a runner’s workout; instead, it’s used as an alternative approach. And barefoot running is certainly not recommended when running along sidewalks or in urban areas where you might encounter debris such as broken glass. If runners want to incorporate barefoot running, they are advised to do so in small increments – which can be increased slowly over time – so that the body can adjust accordingly.

But what do you think? Have you tried barefoot running? Share your experience in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. I saw something on TV before, can’t remember which show though. But they were talking about a tribe somewhere in which the males would be running barefoot for very long distances over a very long period of time without stopping.

    I remember them saying something about the way we run using our heels first that gave shocks to the bone structures and something about shoes just helping reducing the shock a bit.

    But, that’s a very interesting post!

    Thanks Davey! 🙂

  2. I’ve never tried running barefoot, but run with the Vibram FiveFingers half of the time I run. Using the FiveFingers seems to really work different leg muscles than traditional running shoes!

    • Do you think I should buy a pair and review them for the blog?

      • Definitely buy VFFs!

      • I have 4 pair of vibram shoes, I rarely wear anything else. I’ve run up to 13 miles in my vibrams and plan on running my next marathon in them. There is an entire group of people who run long distance (marathons) with no foot protection at all. The more I read on the subject, the more I am convinced that barefoot is the way to go.

      • You should totally get one, use it for about 2 weeks first (adjustment time will vary), and then do a review. It’s really gooood!

        The gym over at my college used to ban those kind of shoes (VFF) because they said they’re not considered as “athletic shoes,” until I wrote a 7-page letter to the advisory board; putting in all the research they did on running barefoot (or with VFF) vs regular (thick) running shoes. And now they are allowed 🙂

        Here’s a link to the research they did in Harvard:
        http://barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/index.html

        And NPR’s article also covered about it:
        http://www.npr.org/2010/01/27/123031997/study-humans-were-born-to-run-barefoot?ft=1&f=1001

      • Buy and try them, but start off small. Running on the front of your foot (the way evolution intended) uses different muscles than how we run in running shoes. 5k in runners is not a problem for me, but when I first switched to VFFs I could barely do a kilometre. It took me a while to get back to normal, but far better. My only issue was sizing and my toes rubbed giving me blisters, really make sure they’re sized right.

  3. ApplesNPhillip says:

    Haha, I love how you post this two days after I buy my Vibram FiveFingers!!! It’s as if you read my mind 🙂

  4. I have ran barefoot for two years now. I find its less painful on my knees,hips, and lower back compared to shoes. Still to this day when I run in shoes I’m lucky to get half mile in,but the minute I take my shoes off I feel great and run a 5k evryday before workout.

  5. I do not know if barefoot running is healthier or increases/decreases injuries but i love watching barefoot men running… So it is good for something…

  6. I always run barefoot (down in my local park) I find it allows me to run further and faster. Also there is a history of poor joint structure in my family so the reduced impacts from running barefoot help stop joint pains. Don’t know if it’s just me but running barefoot also feels much more comfortable (maybe because of the reduced impact or maybe because it means I’m always running on grass or sand).

    One alternative I’ve come across is running in Tabi (ninja shoes) because they have almost no padding. You get the same effect of running without shoes (but they’re seriously uncool…).

    X

    • Shoes are designed to absorb shock and reduce impact… well proper running shoes are anyways.

      • But some of the research shows that there is less shock to absorb when we’re running barefoot vs. with a flat sneaker.

      • Cushioned running shoes have allowed most people to run like they walk, heel-striking. That type of running is relatively new when looking at the span of human existence and while it works well for some, I think it is inefficient and can contribute to a myriad of injuries. Since switching to minimalist running (shoes and running technique) I am running faster and healthier. The transition to minimalist shoes or style takes time but is well worth the effort.

  7. I run barefoot… I use to have shoes, and the lightest ones in the world at that… they were just mesh really. Since a year ago when i decided to change I feel even better running, I have found increased awareness and a higher pain threshold. I wouldn’t go as far as to saying its romantic… Running barefoot does wonders for your body and feet but not in the looks department. Ha ha ha.

    Nic

  8. You should look into Chi Running. I have been using Newton’s to correct my running from the heel-strike. I plan on moving to the Five Fingers at some point. The only caveat with those and barefoot is cushioning and protection. Traditional shoes protect you from debris that you may come across.

  9. So I’ve been procrastinating from my assignments by re-watching my favourite Davey Wavey youtube videos. Then further procrastinated by reading a bunch of blog posts. Then, Mr Davey, you go and mention my university in your blog post. Of all the universities across the world, you manage to mention mine… all the way in Melbourne Australia. If that isn’t some kind of weird kick in the ass by the universe telling me to do my assignments, I don’t know what is. So now, I shall sleep… and maybe do them tomorrow 🙂

  10. I personly hate shoes. You can’t feel the earth under your feet. No shoes no shirt no problem!!!

  11. I vote for you to review those shoes. I’ve considered buying some only for the purpose of exercise, but they freak me out and not sure I want to. If they actually help I may over look how weird they are. In any event, maybe you can convince people that they’re not acceptable footwear for activities other than exercise.

  12. I recently bought a pair of VibrumFiveFingers running shoes (they have no cushion and each toe is separated) They are said to be just like barefoot running with the added benefit of protecting the food from debris ( urban glass). but I also recently heard that they may cause micro sprains. you should try them out and tell us all about them!

  13. A little off the track of running, I recall being a child and being barefoot everywhere. I lived on the edge of the desert in Australia. The sand was hot, the road was hotter, and the occasional prickle would hurt like you wouldn’t believe. As an adult, I find I’ve wrapped my feet in shoes for protection but still love that direct contact with the earth. While my feet can overheat in shoes, they never do barefoot. Yeah, hot ground still discourages me, and sharps; but honestly, I still prefer barefoot. It’s a social convention to wear shoes. Although I’d be perfectly content walking to the corner store without shoes, it’s a major faux pas. “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” There’s nothing wrong with naked feet. However, shoes are helpful in lots of ways. Even simply for hiding ugly feet, I’d recommend footwear any day.

  14. I read somewhere and Dr.Oz said thatvfor people with high arches, it is not good for you to run barefoot. Any thoughts on that?

  15. Just wear Vibrams. It’s the same as barefoot running but with the protection of a shoe…. Sort of

  16. I imagine barefoot running is benificial… Esp. FROM sabre-toothed tigers.

  17. I refuse to run barefoot anywhere except the beach. Trying to avoid sharp little pebbles, twigs, trash, or dog doo leaves me afraid. I’d much rather run on some powdery sand while checking out surfer-ass (better than hockey-butt.) But then again this is coming from the guy that stepped on a bee last month. :/

  18. I just started training for my 1st 10k since getting out of the Marine Corps 17 years ago. I’ve always hated running. Then again, I also hate wearing shoes. (All those years of combat/jungle boots?)

    So a friend suggested the Merrell Pace Glove shoes. “Minimalist”/”Barefoot” running shoes. I’m in ♥ with them! They are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. I’ve been running in them now for about 2 weeks and will never go back to the Reebok Zigs that I was using.

    Just sayin’…

  19. I’ve been running with VFFs for a couple of months now. I definitely had to work myself up to running distances in them. Because you run on the balls of your feet, the impact is absorbed primarily by the calf muscles and the achilles tendon. The first few times, you will really feel it in your calves. But my chronic patellofemoral and IT band problems haven’t troubled me at all, and I’m running 5-8 miles a week, and increasing.

  20. There is one real issue about shoes vs barefoot it’s the same as going bareback or not. When we choose to go barefoot we have the risk of injury there is always a peble or a stone that we can step on, a piece of glass or a splinter and since our feet aren’t realy patted like those of dogs, cats or bears and more so they don’t even get to be hardend as they would had we gone barefoot all the time. Feet injuries can be serious they might not heal as fast as others and are verry unconfortable however just like going barebacking if you’r certaine that there isn’t any danger go ahead and do it. Truth is when you are running you can’t be constanly attentive to what’s on the ground.

  21. There is one real issue about shoes vs barefoot it’s the same as going bareback or not. When we choose to go barefoot we have the risk of injury there is always a peble, a piece of glass or a splinter that we can step on and since our feet aren’t realy patted like those of dogs, cats or bears and more so they don’t even get to hardened as they would had we gone barefoot all the time. Feet injuries can be serious they might not heal as fast as others and are verry unconfortable however just like going barebacking if you’r certaine that there isn’t any danger go ahead and do it. Truth is when you are running you can’t be constanly attentive to what’s on the ground.

  22. i get how running barefoot on sand, grass, dirt trails, and the like could be beneficial… but running barefoot on concrete or asphalt seems pretty stupid… all debris and dog doo aside, even though asphalt does “give” a bit when your feet hit the ground, concrete doesnt… even in the best running shoes the pain is intense… i have yet to see anyone running on concrete or asphalt smile or even appear to be having an “ok” time.. most of the ones i encounter while im out riding my bicycle look like theyre victims of a forced march to the end of the earth.. especially if they appear to be even remotely close to my age, 46.. and in otherwise kick-ass shape…

    ~ cheers…

  23. I so run in barefeet occasionally, usually to do warmup excersizes on a field or If I am running on the beach. I did though make the genius decision to run 3 miles barefoot on asphalt…..not so genius after I was finished running. Blisters had formed while I was running And a couple broke resulting in bloody toes.

    I do enjoy running in barefeet in the grass and on the beach though

  24. I run in VFFs and don’t plan on using anything other than a minimalist shoe in the future. I’ve had chronic tendonitis in my knees since my junior year of high school, and minimalist running has been a godsend since it seems to reduce impact on my knees (because of no heel-toe striking) and strengthen muscles that don’t always get used and are thus weak. You do have to work into them slowly, though. You will have some calf pain, and top of the foot pain occasionally follows for some people (once again, working muscles that are weak because of not enough use).

    On top of that, I feel like I’m running faster with less effort than I was with normal running shoes (and I was always pretty fast). I don’t know if it’s reducing oxygen like you say, or if it’s because I’m just running with better form, but either way, for the first time in years, I feel like I can properly train for some races.

  25. Well I had to jump into this fray because I used to be a HUGE fan of running. I’d run 5 miles 5-6x a week around my lakes in Minneapolis. But for years I would constantly battle shin splints and back pain that would come and come throughout the year. As I got older I stopped because it was too much. Then last year I read Born to Run by Christopher McDougal about the Tara Umara ultramarathon runners who typically run 50+ miles at a time with nothing on their feet but tire tread thats strung around the foot. They don’t suffer the injuries like we do and Christopher illustrated in his book they don’t heal strike, they forefoot strike, using the arch of the foot and the calf muscles as shock absorption. This makes total sense. Anyways, it inspired me to buy some light weight running shoes that are really no more than rubber bottoms and a comfortable cloth top, they are super light and look better than the toe finger brand I can’t remember it’s name. I’ve spent 2 months retraining to forefoot strike as EVERYONE i’ve talked to so you MOST DEFINITELY use different muscles running this way and I immediately noticed it in my arches and calves, just from doing a quarter mile. Brought it up slowly to two miles and I can tell you this much…I’ve not had a SINGLE back pain or shin splint issue, not one, since switching to these shoes and that running method. Would highly, highly, recommend it.

  26. Hello from Germany!
    I use the Barefootshoes “Vibram Five Fingers”.

    They are realy perfect! I wear them daily in the office…

    Just take a look:
    http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/index.htm

    Ciao Marko

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