Should You Toss Your Running Shoes and Go Barefoot?

Running Shoes on the Street

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Remember when you were a kid? You raced around the playground or the yard for hours at a time, somehow managing not to hurt yourself despite your lack of $150 running shoes and custom-made $400 orthotic inserts. There’s a growing sense in many quarters that your childhood impulse may have been the correct one and that the very shoes we think are protecting us from harm may be causing it.

For decades, there’s been a grass-roots movement for extremely minimalist, i.e., barefoot running. (See barefootrunning.org for stories from this crew.) But only in the past few years have companies begun to get in on the act, too. They now offer stripped-down models that don’t have the padding and structural elements that characterize conventional running shoes. There’s no little irony in Nike’s instructions to begin “barefoot-like” running with one $90-plus model of its Free lineup, then phase down through two more models before you’re running with a “nearly naked feeling.” (Presumably, they don’t want you to take the next step and swap Nikes for the actual naked feeling, though.) Other companies, including New Balance, Newton, Ecco, and Terra Plana, also have minimalist footwear for running and walking.

In his recent book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, author Christopher McDougall explores the broader notion of what “natural” running would entail. Taking aim at shoe companies, he argues that modern running shoes promote a heel-first stride that makes us more vulnerable to injuries. (He’s a convert; since running in Vibram FiveFingers, a neoprene socklike foot covering, and changing his stride, he’s seen his problems disappear.) McDougall cites studies showing that more expensive running shoes don’t necessarily lead to fewer injuries. Other research suggests that heavily cushioned shoes actually prevent your foot from sensing the ground and can make you stomp down harder than if you didn’t have all that padding.

“They don’t let the foot, and ultimately the body, work like it’s supposed to,” says Galahad Clark, owner of Terra Plana, which produces a shoe technology — Vivo Barefoot — that puts just a 3-millimeter, flexible (but puncture-resistant) sole between your foot and the ground. “Expensive running shoes let you run in a way and arguably for distances that you normally wouldn’t have been able to do,” he says. Walking and running barefoot, or close to it, allows what Clark calls your “amazing” foot to adjust to whatever surfaces—even modern, hard ones—and circumstances it experiences.

So what’s the evidence behind this notion? And should you try it? There isn’t strong evidence that barefoot running is any better or worse than running with more structured shoes, says Veni Kong, a kinesiologist at the University of Texas-El Paso, in part because there aren’t enough regular barefoot runners with whom to compare users of running shoes. But there’s a lack of a solid evidence base for running footwear in general, she notes. People are often prescribed shoes with elevated, padded heels that are designed to control pronation, but a March review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found no evidence behind the idea that this will prevent injury or improve performance.

Keith Williams, an exercise biologist at the University of California-Davis, says humans are both incredibly varied and incredibly adaptable. The former means some of us pronate our feet as few as 2 degrees, and others as much as 25 degrees. Our bones articulate differently, our ligaments are structured differently. Some of us are heavy, some aren’t. And some people, he says, have truly been helped by modern shoes, inserts, and orthotics. Others probably don’t need the bells and whistles. So to prescribe one kind of shoe (or lack thereof) or running technique for everyone is not a good idea. “I’m against the one-size-fits-all approach for anything,” he says.

On the other hand, Williams says, our adaptability means that a lot of us could probably adjust over time to running with minimal or no cushioning, and for some, it might bring benefits. Just by wearing lighter footwear, you reduce the amount of energy involved in running. That kind of change, or varying the stresses on the lower legs, could theoretically reduce injury or improve performance for some people.

If you’d like to give it a whirl, don’t jump into it whole hog. Start off slowly, advises Kong, and stop if it doesn’t feel right, since you’re probably used to wearing regular shoes and need to adjust. “If we said to everyone in the world, just kick off your shoes and go running, a lot of people would hurt themselves,” says Clark. Obviously, be aware of the surface you’re running on; simply to protect against cuts and scrapes, going totally barefoot down the sidewalks of New York is probably not a great idea. If you’re using minimalist shoes, try to avoid landing on your heel, which you may be used to doing in padded shoes, and perhaps start out by running on grass, Clark says. In the end, he says, the ultimate experts on footwear are you and your body.

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Author:David

An instigator and barefoot runner since 2002.

20 Responses to “Should You Toss Your Running Shoes and Go Barefoot?”

  1. sherian
    June 16, 2009 at 6:44 am #

    I have been living and walking barefoot for the past few months now and this week finally felt like I was ready to try running a little. I have been doing only quarter or half mile runs on grass, but it is a start! I found that even though my feet were getting used to barefoot walking, the running is going to take some time to get used to. I had new sore muscles in my feet this morning, but a little foot massage and they feel ready to go.

    I like running on grass. The neignborhood school has a running track marked out in their field. I only wish they didn’t water it so much. It is hard to plan for a time of day when the grass is not soaked.

    I found that after running on the grass, I had better form once I hit the pavement to run home. (Less heel striking)

    Thanks for the informative article. I am going to need to look for some kind of minimalist footwear for winter, so it helps to read what other barefoot people are doing!

  2. David
    June 17, 2009 at 4:23 am #

    Hi David,

    Well, you now have a pair of BIOM running shoes to try. I thought this was an appropriate story to comment on in context with the BIOM concept. As we discussed as it applies to your readers and followers, BIOM is probably best positioned as a shoe to help transition runners who are currently running in the current portfolio of motion control, stability and maximum cushion shoes to barefoot running. BIOM was inspired by barefoot runners and is not meant to replace or dispplace barefoot running.

    I am anxious to hear what you think of the BIOM concept. ECCO and BIOM are unique in many ways from the other brands.

    Happy Running,

    David Helter

  3. L. Klassen
    June 18, 2009 at 6:47 am #

    Besides loving beautiful shoes for special occasions I have always wandered barefoot or as close to it as I can. I had no philosophy attached to being barefoot, I just prefer it. My kids have all turned out the same. My husband lives in his old no support tevas. Of course when it’s -20C we gladly keep our feet warm and covered but that’s another animal all together.

    I am not a marathoner or diehard runner. I train for lots of sports, most of them winter sports. But I do love going for a good run. I was never able to afford the sort of trainers I was always told I should have. I ran with sneakers that were little more than a covering to keep from hurting my feet on stones. After a few years I was finally able to buy the “right” sort of shoe for the running and cross training that I do. Before two years had passed I was unable to run anymore. My shin splints were terrible. As well I began to have debilitating lower back pain after every run. A couple of months ago I listened to a barefoot runner interviewed on CBC radio here in Canada. I was fascinated. I began to run on my treadmill barefoot. I have gotten myself to a 30min run (not jog) and I have no pain anywhere. I went and bought plain jane sneakers again to run in through the bush trails I love so much. As of yet I haven’t been able to see how I am on the trails that are outside my front door; we have a mamma bear with twins this year; so for now I’ll stick to the treadmill and I’m o.k. with that. I’m running! Really that’s all that matters to me. Thank you for this site.

    Peace & rest,
    L. Klassen

  4. June 24, 2009 at 10:11 am #

    I think it’s also important to note that the transition from shod running to barefoot running is not just a matter of strengthening the feet–many of our gait problems come also from mobility deficits in the hips. Improving internal hip rotation through regular soft tissue work (especially foam rolling) and pre-workout mobility drills can really accelerate acclimation to barefoot running.

    • Marie
      April 6, 2014 at 5:15 pm #

      Jay,
      I couldn’t agree with you more. As an aspired barefoot runner, PT and orthopedic massage therapist, most athletes I work with in my practice are severely limited in their hip rotational ROM (range of motion). Until full ROM is achieved, people/athletes set themselves up for injuries and wonder why the repetitive back, knee or foot injuries. I suggested to everyone wanting to make the transition to barefoot or minimalist shoe running, (never mind athleticism in general) to seek out an experienced certified orthopedic massage therapist or physical therapist trained in manual sports therapies for an evaluation. Your body will thank you for it in the long run!

      Happy Trails,
      Marie

  5. June 24, 2009 at 1:49 pm #

    @Jay, great insight! It’s been a long time (8+ years now) since I discovered ‘barefooting’ while trying to cure a serious IT band injury. And yes, soft tissue work was involved prior to embarking on barefoot running, as were strengthening exercises for the hip & glute muscles. Although, for those that aren’t currently experiencing running related injury, my 2nd best piece of advice, after going barefoot that is, would be to cross-train whenever possible. Running alone should not be your one and only form of exercise. Supplement your running routine with swimming, cycling, skiing, etc. I’m not a big fan of cardio machines (ie. elliptical, stairclimbers). Get fit and get outside! Happy trails, David.

  6. Patrick
    June 26, 2009 at 1:22 pm #

    I have been working on my form for the past 6 months when I first got wind of the barefoot movement. I had been plagued by calf and shin injuries (my common overuse injuries) in my former heal striking days. I tried running in the vibram 5 fingers kso. I found it fine at first. My pace was slower on pavement and my cadence was higher, but I was cruising and had that running on air feeling. That feeling came crashing down as i realized the heel material had rubbed my heels raw. Also, my inner forefoot felt pretty raw too. I have been running barefoot in grass but got tired of picking out the splinters. I rather splinters than a raw feeling. Luckily i tried my friend’s vibrams before I bought my own.

    I’m thinking of making my own huaraches. I can’t seem to find minimalistic footwear cheap enough that doesn’t rub some part of my foot raw, and my feet aren’t tough enough to run on pavement in the 100 degree heat (not enough grassy fields to do any kind of longish run close by).

  7. June 27, 2009 at 7:15 am #

    Barefoot walking and running has improved my posture and back, hip and knee health. My achilles tendonitis, from 37 years of running in running shoes, is getting better week by week. It’s amazing to think that I have been restricting my well-designed feet for all these years. The good lord gave us perfectly good feet.

    Unfortunately, I travel a lot for work, so I am looking for bare minimal footwear when I am on unfamiliar ground. Today i mostly walked but ran as well for an hour and a half wearing cheap water shoes from Target. Not terrible, but not great either. Insoles slide around. My form isn’t as good as when I am barefoot. Thinking about ordering some Feelmax Panka shoes and giving that a try.

  8. June 27, 2009 at 7:18 am #

    One more thing: when I run and walk barefoot at home in Nashville, I am almost always on pavement or sidewalk. You will be surprised how quickly your feet adjust. The arch gets higher, the skin on the soles of your feet gets smoother and you also develop the muscles on the soles that provide enough cushion. Sure, when I walk over some gravel, i feel it! But in general it feels like one big foot massage. Makes my day to get up at dawn and spend as much time as I can squeeze in before kids and work—-barefoot on the pavement.

  9. June 27, 2009 at 5:21 pm #

    I just got a pair of Vibram FiveFingers and really love them. It’s fun to “feel the ground” while I run. Slowly building up to running a few miles at a stretch in them. Feel a bit of rubbing on my achilles in them (need to use a little medical tape to keep from chaffing their too much) – but aside from that they feel great.

    Posted some thoughts on barefoot running/Vibram FiveFingers on my blog @ http://www.sethigherstandards.com/barefoot-running-vibram-five-fingers-are-worth-it/

    Thanks for such a great and informative site!

    Ravi

  10. John Short
    June 29, 2009 at 4:40 am #

    For longish runs without too much splinter pulling, try golf courses. Manicured and always kept mowed, wonderful for going barefoot early or late in the day before the golfers hit the course. Tip, always run in reverse so you can see golfers hitting, plus talk to the proshop, 99% of the time, as long as you aren’t hindering the paying customers, they will not mind a runner. Most courses have cart paths too to alow for some hard surface training. Happy running.

  11. Patrick
    June 29, 2009 at 12:01 pm #

    Thanks for the golf course tip. its a bit far away but it’ll do. i never thought of that.

    and yea tape might help running in the vibrams. i rather just go barefoot than worry about being rubbed raw though

  12. Phil
    July 10, 2009 at 10:30 pm #

    What about sandals? I am lucky enough to have a job where I can wear sandals. love them. Benefits? Comparison to barefoot?

    I haven’t seen any prototype for this skora idea but a cross between sandals and aquasox seems breathable and with sufficient toe-box room to work out well.

  13. Ken
    July 26, 2009 at 6:42 am #

    I play a lot of basketball and of course wear Adidas and Nike basketball shoes. Minimal footwear seems not to be an option in basketball. Playing barefoot is of course not an option. Maybe humans were meant to play basketball in cushioned shoes. We may have been running and walking barefoot for a few thousand years but basketball had only been created relatively recently. The evolution of our feet could not have anticipated a game like basketball. A game where there is a lot of stress on the foot, landing from a rebound and pushing off for a jumpshot for example. I guess what I’d like to say is, maybe cushioned shoes aren’t so bad and are needed in our life.

  14. August 18, 2009 at 9:44 am #

    I’ve been wearing a pair of FiveFingers around this summer and really like their breathability and comfort. They are really amazing shoes if you don’t mind getting frequent comments about your shoes from strangers. The soles, although Vibram, are pretty thin and running in stony areas (think driveway gravel-sized stones) can be very uncomfortable. They are at vibramfivefingers.com

  15. Michael
    August 25, 2009 at 12:18 pm #

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the information/discussion available on this site. I’m a new convert, and I love the philosophy. I did my first barefoot run last week, and while I really liked it and saw the ways it made me change my running motion, I didn’t understand correctly the advice I had been reading, to start slow, to try it for five minutes at a time. I have been barefoot as much as possible this summer, but didn’t expect that in my five to ten minutes of running barefoot I’d end up with superficially very sore feet. I came home to discover a silver dollar sized blood blister on the ball of my left foot. Oh, so that’s why I should start slow. Nevertheless, I am undeterred and am hooked.

    Any advice on winter running barefoot?

  16. October 7, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    I have been absent for a while, but now I remember why I used to love this web site. Thanks, I’ll try and check back more frequently. How frequently do you update your site?

  17. March 4, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

    Hello, just wanted to say, I enjoyed this blog post. It was inspiring.
    Keep on posting!

  18. Marie
    April 6, 2014 at 5:21 pm #

    Just discovering this blog. Great info….. My adventure to barefoot running is just beginning.
    Excited!!!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Running Quest | 12 Step Program to Run Shodless – How I plan to go barefoot while staying injury free. - October 16, 2009

    [...] Barefoot Runner – This site is loaded with information pertaining to barefoot running. In addition to good foot exercises, the post Should You Toss Your Running Shoes and Just Go Barefoot? is helpful for beginners. [...]

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