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Barefoot Running vs. Shoes

Barefoot Running

You want me to run barefoot? When my friend Ted suggested it, I was training for my first marathon. I was fairly new to long distance running and the idea of getting rid of my comfortable shoes and expensive orthotics seemed preposterous.

Ted's inspiration came from an article written by Christopher McDougall for the July/August 2006 edition of Men's Health magazine. In the article McDougall talks about the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico's Copper Canyons. They regularly run 100-mile races wearing nothing but thin sandals and, according to the author, rarely ever suffer from common runners' problems like plantar fasciitis or shin splints.

It didn't make any sense. How could getting rid of the support and protection of shoes make things better? So I started looking into it to see what research had found. At the time, the medical community had almost no opinion. There were a handful of articles I found going back to 1987 that hinted barefoot was better for your arches, for lowering back pain and reducing stress on the hip joints. But none of them conclusively answered two basic questions.

  1. Which is better, running with shoes or barefoot?
  2. Can you run faster with shoes or barefoot?

The answer to the first question has still not been answered by a large-scale study. BUT, a year after I first looked into barefoot running, newly published smaller studies have had some very compelling results.

In January 2008, the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Heidelberg published a paper that said, "barefoot walking represents the best condition for the development of a healthy foot..." After observing the movement patterns of children's feet in regular shoes, light shoes and barefoot, they recommended "slimmer and more flexible children's shoes..."

The Journal of Biomechanics published a report in September 2009 from Oxylane Research, Department of Movement Sciences in France that said, "shoes not only restricted the natural motion of the barefoot but also appeared to impose a specific foot motion pattern on individuals during the push-off phase." Shoes, by changing your feet's natural motion may be putting you at greater risk of injury.

Researchers at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge Illinois wrote that, "The risk of ankle sprain in beach volleyball, which is played barefoot, seems to be lower than that for indoor volleyball, played wearing shoes." When all else is equal, shoes appear to be the contributing factor behind more injuries.

The findings over the years seem to point to barefoot walking and running as being a healthier, less injury prone option than my beloved shoes. But would it be something a competitive athlete should consider?

Yes.

In June of 2008 the International Journal of Sports Medicine ran a study from the Université de Valenciennes titled, Barefoot-shod running differences: shoe or mass effect? In it they noted that people who were running barefoot had "significantly higher...stride frequency, anterior-posterior impulse, vertical stiffness, leg stiffness, and mechanical work" than people wearing shoes. They determined the differences weren't because of the weight of the shoe, but rather because wearing shoes, "lead to a decrease of the storage and restitution of elastic energy capacity." Running with shoes made the runner less efficient and caused them to burn up more energy than people who were barefoot.

So the research seems to indicate that barefoot is better for your feet, better for your body and helps you compete more vigorously. But I still had a problem. I didn't want to be running down the street and feel my feet get cut up after stepping on glass, sticks, burrs or other road hazards. I had heard there were "shoes" designed to offer protection while still letting your feet move free. Do they work?

One does. The Institute of Sport Medicine and Sport Science at the Italian Olympic National Committee concluded in a March 2009 study that the "Vibram Fivefingers (was)... much closer to barefoot running." It is effective at, "imitating the barefoot conditions while providing a small amount of protection."

That doesn't mean other "barefoot type" shoes won't work. It just means as of October 2009, the Vibram Fivefingers are the only ones that have been proven by an independent organization to offer some protection while imitating barefoot conditions.

I'm not suggesting everyone start running barefoot. If you're using special orthotics, aren't experiencing injuries or are happy with how your body feels using traditional shoes, by all means keep using them. But if you're having problems or are looking for a change, barefoot (or Vibram Fivefinger) running may be just the thing for you.

A word of caution. Don't just switch over from regular shoes to "barefoot" running. Because the way you land on your feet is different, your muscles will be worked in unfamiliar ways. You must start slower, with short runs over the first few weeks to get used to the differences.


UPDATE - 7/12/2010: When we first started researching barefot running in 2007, we had lots of questions and few concrete answers. There was little clinical evidence barefoot running was better than using traditional cushioned shoes. Over the next two years, a couple critical studies emerged that prompted us to release this column. On January 27, 2010 a new study was released in Nature that gives barefoot running another boost.

The the headline said, "A softer ride for barefoot runners." Evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman at Harvard University in Cambridge, "found crucial differences in the way that barefoot and shod runners land, with dramatic consequences for how the body takes the impact ."

The researchers noted that barefoot running brought "...the impact force down to 60% of their bodyweight."

UPDATE - 1/12/2012: In a study published by the American College of Sports Medicine, 52 runners were evaluated and the traditional ones (that strike on the heel) were twice as likely to have repetitive stress injuries as runners who use a forefoot or barefoot strike.

We're still waiting for a long-term, large scale study comparing barefoot runners against their shoe wearing counterparts. But the evidence is getting stronger in favor of dropping over-engineered shoes.

UPDATE - 9/2/2014: In a study on the impacts heels experience during barefoot walking, researchers concluded that, "the heel pad operates close to its pain threshold even at speeds encountered during barefoot walking and provides insight as to why barefoot runners may adopt 'forefoot' strike patterns that minimize heel loading." From "Force-Deformation Properties of the Human Heel Pad during Barefoot Walking by Scott C. Wearing, et al.


TRAINING TIPS

Ken Mierke, an exercise physiologist and creator of the barefoot-modeled Evolution Running Technique advises runners to stay off their heels. Use your legs like a shock absorber.

Eric Orton, an ultrasport coach in Jackson Hole, Wyoming offers the following three suggestions for barefooters.

  • Wear the most neutral, low-heeled running shoe that feels comfortable.
  • Keep your hips dead under your shoulders and dead above your feet.
  • Use big hills to iron out the rest of the wrinkles. (The reason is because you can't run with bad form up a steep hill, you'll tip over! If you don't have a steep hill, practice on a treadmill with a full incline.)

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11/8/2009
Updated 7/12/2010
Updated 8/20/2010
Updated 6/10/2011
Updated 9/10/2011
Updated 1/12/2012
Updated 9/2/2014