Study: Are Barefoot Running Shoes Dangerous?

vibram_fivefingers_flow_1Over the past few years, barefoot running has been gaining traction in the running community. In fact, it’s estimated that minimalist shoes now make up 15% of the .5 billion running shoe market.

There is some science to back up the trend. As I reported early, barefoot running can increase efficiency:

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.

A recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise is adding more science to the barefoot running debate. For the study, researchers examined 36 experienced runners over a 10-week period. All participants underwent an MRI before the study and were then divided into two groups of either traditional running shoes or five finger barefoot running shoes.

Participants in the barefoot group followed the suggested industry protocol by easing into the barefoot running shoes:

They did one short (1-2 mile) run in the minimalist shoes the first week, and added an additional short run each week so that they ran at least 3 miles in the new shoes by week three. They were then told to add mileage in the minimal shoes as they felt comfortable, with the goal of replacing one short run per week in traditional shoes with the new shoes.

At the end of the 10-week study, all participants were again given MRIs. According to researchers, the runners in the barefoot group showed significant signs of stress including bone marrow edema (inflammation causing excessive fluid in the bone).

One researcher noted:

Whenever a bone is impacted by running or some other repetitive action, it goes through a normal remodeling process to get stronger. Injury occurs when the impact is coming too quickly or too powerfully, and the bone doesn’t have a chance to properly remodel before impact reoccurs.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that barefoot running or minimalist running shoes are necessarily bad. Instead, the study suggests that a longer transition period may be advisable. If you’ve been running your whole life in traditional running shoes, give yourself more than a few weeks to become accustomed.

Personally, I prefer the Nike Free Run shoes. They’re light, flexible and emulate barefoot running while still providing some support. In fact, my feet didn’t fit properly in the five finger shoes - so they weren’t an option for me. The Free Run shoes also come in different levels of support to help your transition. Even so, it’s taken me almost a year and several pairs of Nike Free Run shoes to fully transition and commit to the minimalist sneakers.

Have you ever tried minimalist running shoes? Let me know about it in the comments below!

Disclaimer: This isn’t a paid endorsement or sponsorship of Nike Free Run sneakers.

About Davey Wavey

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  1. Hey Davey,

    I am switching slowly to a 4mm heel (transition shoe to minimalist running shoe) and love it. Everytime I was done running my back muscles would be tight and my knees would hurt when wearing a traditional running shoe. The first day I did 1 mile in the minimalist shoe at the end of my 3 mile run I noticed my back and knees didn’t hurt. Now I only run 3 days a week so that be part of it. I also use the minimalist shoes when doing my 4-5 mile walk on the days I don’t run. Again, the back muscles aren’t tight when I’m done

    The only problem I’ve found is that I need to stretch my plantar fascia after the run; but then that isn’t that hard to do.

  2. Robert Prosser says:

    I’ve used barefoot running shoes for two years - now I am under specialist treatment for stretched tendons in my feet, and fluid around my ankle joints.
    Been wearing wedges in my shoes to reverse the barefoot running effect and more than half the issues have reversed in the first 4 weeks.

    Clearly not suitable for me

  3. WereGrouch says:

    Interestingly, this doesn’t mention if the runners were on the road or on trails. I know there is significantly less stress on the feet on trails compared to asphalt or the dreaded concrete. I wouldn’t think barefoot running would ever be a good idea on the harder surfaces.

  4. I’ll just stick to my shoes. I don’t like running anyways 😛

  5. I use fivefingers to walk, after long hours at work my feet just feel tired. I had pain in my ankle and now its gone. Just enjoying being comfortable. For the gym and running just Reebok.

  6. I’ve been wearing Five Finger shoes and other minimalist shoes for several years. I go through spurts of running and love running in them, but mainly wear them around town and to CrossFit. (They’re great for Olympic lifting, but may take some people awhile to comfortable do squats in them. Burpees suck, but with these shoes you have to be careful how you land on your toes.) Yeah, anyway, running, I think these shoes force you to run in a way that you’re not landing hard on your heel. I can’t think of a time I’ve gotten calf cramps while running in my Five Fingers, but there were plenty of times I got them with regular, padded shoes.

  7. P.S. - I wish I was in that study and got some free shoes. They cost over £125 (~$185) in London and some are around £200 (~$300). Kinda ridiculous since you can get them for around $100 in the US.

  8. This article doesn’t address running form or technique, which leads me to believe that you, the author, don’t have a strong enough grasp on the sport to be dispensing advice about which shoes are optimal.

    • it’s true! The running style IS different— forefoot strike as opposed to heel strike. And it takes more than a few weeks to condition into it. Try months. LOTS of months. They have already done me a lot of good though. My massage therapist told me yesterday that my feet are working a lot better energetically than ever before.

      But I also wear them all day, every day. As well as my walk/run. And I’ve been using them since October.

  9. Shadow Black says:

    I have not tried these shoes, but I run on average of 4 times a week … ALWAYS in my bare feet - in fact, I only wear shoes when I absolutely have too ( going in stores, rest. etc) the rest of the time I am 100% bare foot. I live in Ontario Canada and even go in the snow most days bare foot - and I stay in on the exceptional cold days when there is a danger of frost bite.

  10. I just finished the book “born to run” and totally thinking about getting into barefoot running! ish type of thing. It’s cold out, so still at the “just thinking about it” stage.
    I was looking at the xeroshoes (from Boulder,CO) the other day. They are super fun and has the Tarahumara look, bought a pair and can’t wait to try it on one of my runs soon. Anyways, just want to say, thanks for the great post! I guess I have to try this bare foot running thing now.

  11. Ok I think there is some debate on how you run in them. I have 2 pairs of vibram 5 fingers, I started with the treks for trail running and now I have the Komodo for the treadmill and track. LOVE THEM. I’ve lost over 110lbs in them. When you first buy them the associate tells you take 1 month to transition from running shoes to the barefoot shoes. You have to run on the pads of your foot not the heel. I have never had a problem and when I first started on them my feet had a lot more pressure on them than most. If the associate knew about that and the information was not in the article I assume that research was not so thorough. That or you have a vendetta against the shoes and you bend the article to make them look bad. Either way more research has to be done.

  12. Joshua Hipps says:

    As a marathon and half marathon runner myself, I have never run in the 5 finger shoes. I did run in some Merrell minimalist shoes when I first started training a while ago to correct my form. However, I allowed my body time to adjust. I personally am a huge fan of mizuno running shoes.

  13. I got a stress fracture in my foot after a month or so running in a pair of these.

  14. The problem here is that in your linked review of the Nike shoes you start with:

    “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.”

    …yet this article and the MRI-based study shows the reverse (and common sense would agree with the MRI conclusions anyway). It doesn’t make any sense that running barefoot vs running in a traditional running shoe with considerable sole padding could somehow *decrease* “heel strike”, in the absence of other information. Thus as another commenter notes, details of the running technique are needed too.

  15. I read a Harvard study a while back about barefoot running and seem to remember that it addresses the mechanics of running. I just Googled it, but haven’t re-read it:

  16. I’ve I New Balance running shoes with arch supports for the longest time and then decided i’d start to go more minimalist. Started out with the Inov-8 brand of 4mm heel and loved them! Immediately i could tell a difference- especially running up hill.

    I noticed my calves started to build up a lot too. I never had large calves no matter what i tried in the gym and then bam. I go back and forth between my 5 fingers and my Inov-8s now and love them both. The barefoot running definitely forces you into running on the fore foot much more than any other shoe. Thus far, i’ve only noticed a difference in my calf and have experienced a little soreness in my right knee. I do both trail running and street running in them. I say they’re worth a shot to anyone but definitely be a concious consumer.

  17. This study just proves that if you don’t transition to barefoot running, VERY SLOWLY, you will put undo stress on your feet. After an initial injury when I tried to transition quickly, I planned out a WHOLE YEAR for my transition. The bones take a long time to adjust.

    Now, 4 years later, I run exclusively barefoot except in the gym where they don’t allow it. I’ve run two half marathons barefoot and was ready to run the NYC marathon last year before it got canceled.

    10 weeks is not enough time. It makes complete sense that they found these results. But everyone is interpreting the info incorrectly.

  18. I have run for 40+ years, and was beginning to get trouble from joint pains and a fallen left foot arch. When I was at school, we did a lot of sports barefoot, and I decided to try running barefoot again, transitioning to minimalist shoes when the weather got cold. Initially, I could only run for about 5 minutes before my calves locked up (compared with 40+ minutes in standard running shoes). It took a year to build up distance and strength, but now I run with minimalist shoes all the time and love it, and can manage two hours running, no problems. The arch on my left foot has re-formed. The slow build-up to allow the muscles, ligaments and bones to build and strengthen is critical in this process. I’m so much of a zealot now that my wife and I have become distributors for a brand of minimalist shoes in Switzerland.

  19. I fell in love with running about 4 years ago. Traditional running shoes is what I started off with. It didn’t really matter to me what I was running in, as long as I was running. However, the more and more I ran, the more and more I wanted to make sure I was running properly to prevent future injury. Basically, I wanted to make sure my body was equipped to be able to run for as long as it possibly could without deterioration. This is when I began reading and researching and found that minimalist shoes (when running properly of course) are the best way to go. I totally agree with the studies suggesting to ease into running with a minimalist shoe. I noticed, at first, that my legs were more sore and it was extremely uncomfortable to run. Over the years, my legs and feet have adapted to the new shoe and style of running. I even noticed that my calves are larger due to the fact that I am using them more when running on the forefront of my feet (something that minimalist shoes sort of force you to do). It’s a great way to run and I thank you for your wonderful post. More people will benefit from the proper and more sustainable way of running because of you.

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