barefoot running: well-grounded or head-in-the-clouds?



barefoot-running-debate

No, Tess is not auditioning for the role of Cinderella. Cinderella had the good sense to at least keep one shoe on. And no, she hasn’t forgotten her shoes at home.  In her preparation for the New York marathon, Tess recently embarked on a barefoot training regime. That’s correct – She's willingly elected to go running with naked feet.

Barefoot running is a hot topic in the world of runners right now. The debate between barefoot running, zero drop shoes (shoes where the forefoot and the heel are at the same level) and traditional (raised-heel) shoes rages on. So, when my coach asked me if I would be willing to try doing some of my track warm-ups barefoot, I jumped at the chance…and then immediately wondered what I had gotten myself into.

injury prevention or cause

I have battled IT Band issues my entire running career and a large part of the problem stems from the fact that I have weak feet. The theory behind barefoot running is that standard running shoes actually offer our feet unnecessary support and by removing the shoes, we teach our feet to stand (and run) on their own. Devotees of the practice also claim it to be an excellent tool for teaching your body proper running form – landing with a mid-foot strike rather than a heel strike which means lower impact on joints – while opponents claim that the continuous pounding without protection will only set you up for injury.

the mid-foot strike

If you’re doing it correctly, your foot will hit the ground almost directly under your hip, making it easy for you to bring the foot back and have the heel just barely graze the ground. It should also be markedly quieter than when you run with a heel strike. I sometimes feel as though I’m doing my very best Godzilla impression when I start running with my heels down first.

what devotees and opponents are saying

  • Pro – strengthens under-used muscles in the feet
  • Pro – naturally promotes good form
  • Pro – good form means fewer injuries and faster race times
  • Con – repeated pavement pounding without support can lead to overstress and injury
  • Con – feet exposed to the elements could become injured by objects on the ground
  • Con – Not enough research has been performed to prove that it prevents injuries

running-shoes-scuba-hoodie

take it slow

One of the most important things to know is that you have to ease into it (um, isn’t there some line about learning to walk before you run?) I only ran 400 meters and my feet felt like they got a workout. Take it slowly so your body has time to adapt and you don’t wind up sidelining yourself. And, while I may not ever take on my beloved 26.2 mile distance shoeless, I will continue to spend part of my training free of my shoes and spend the time when I'm shod wearing zero drop racing flats. It’s earned me a new nickname from the boys at the track – “Foot Nudist”.

They say, "don’t knock it ’til you try it" but for some people the idea of going shoeless just doesn't add up. Are shoe-wearers being over-sensitive or are 'foot-nudists' a pack of heavily calloused idealists?

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22 Comments »


hey, i love(d) barefoot running. well not exactly, i got a pair of vibram 5 finger shoes. and now im sitting here with 2 stress fractures in the 3rd and 4th metatarsals of my left foot. But i rly loved wearing them, i guess i did too much too soon. I had them for a little over a month and wore them like every day, and worked out (HIIT) before i ever ran in them. When i ran, the most i did was 2 miles, and only once! I didnt know my foot was broken, but after that it started to rly hurt if i put any pressure on the balls of my feet. It felt like there was a kink in the middle of my foot. But i NEVER twisted my ankle, or jumped off of anything rly high.

Just go REALLY REALLY SLOW!!!!!!!!!!! i walk around barefoot all the time, i used to work out barefoot. but even my feet, muscles, and bones werent ready for running yet i guess. plus, if you wear vibrams it doesnt hurt like it would barefoot, so u dont know when your injuring yourself until its too late!!! so again, go RLY SLOW!!! Its not worth rushing into it only to break something and spend 6 summer weeks recovering.

Comment by becca — July 28, 2011 @ 9:49 am


I love the minimalist shoe approach to running. I tore my ACL a year ago and after reconstructive surgery wanted to get back into running. I threw on my trusty Asics, but they hurt like heck. So after researching the minimalist approach I found a shoe brand called ‘Newton’ that I gave a try. Ever since I tried them on and started running in them it was complete harmony with my running. They minimalist shoe without the traditional raised heel helped me get back into running because it didnt put stress on my knee from with a leveled heel. Never ever ever in my life had I run without an adjustment period that was spent trying to loosen up a shoe or my feet hurting. The only thing during the transition to minimalist is that you will experience sore calves or achilles heel because of the newly found muscles you start to activate with mid-foot strike running. Overall, I love it and I’m not a skinny girl either.

Comment by danimc — July 28, 2011 @ 10:28 am


I am a beginner runner…..and I credit my “barefoot” shoes for allowing me to run at all. I’ve never been able to run in shoes. My feet always hurt, it was a painful endeavor that I HATED.
Now? No knee pain, no shin pain, and I am registered for my first race in September. :)

Comment by Erin — July 28, 2011 @ 11:16 am


Just read “Born to Run”!!

Comment by bluesash105 — July 28, 2011 @ 2:11 pm


Former ITB sufferer here! And now a minimalist/barefoot devotee. However, like the first commentor, I too did too much too soon, even after doing LOTS of homework and knowing better. Now back to square one. Starting back with Newtons and lots of work on foot strength. At about 3 months I intend to SLOWLY go back to working some BF in. I do believe it’s the right way to do it, and this is after 14 years of running. I hope your journey is a good one!

Comment by misszippy1 — July 28, 2011 @ 2:14 pm


Having worked in orthopaedics and physical therapy, I can honestly say that there is no right answer. Flat footers are NOT good candidates as their lack of arch prevents them from ever developing the necessary stabilizing and support muscles. Those with neutral arches might find this the most comfortable for them. The bottom line is, don’t do it without consulting an expert and making a solid plan to start slowly. If it’s for you, then godspeed and enjoy! If not, don’t worry, sit this trend out and something better will come along eventually :)
The bottom line: there is no holy grail for runners. Try the things that sounds interesting, ditch the things that don’t work. It’s all about you!

Comment by Asterias — July 28, 2011 @ 2:32 pm


I have completely switched to barefoot running. It feels really great but as many others have mentioned before, you MUST take it really slow. Start with just walking in the barefoot shoes, then go for longer and longer walks, then start with very short, easy runs and build from there. I ran the last Vancouver Sun Run in my Vivo Barefoot runners from Terra Plana (http://www.vivobarefoot.com/us/). They’re much more normal looking than the Vibrams. For those in Vancouver, TrainingFx sells them (http://www.trainingfx.com).

Comment by Stephanie — July 28, 2011 @ 2:40 pm


Big Fan of barefoot running, and I have flat feet. The issue lies with people throwing vibrams on their feet and going off and running without learning how to run first.

I see many people who run on their toes/ball of the foot and their heel never touches the ground. This puts a lot of strain on the feet and on the calves/achilles. They still have the same loping stride they had when they ran with sneakers on. All these things spell disaster.

The need to consult someone who can teach the correct technique is imperative.
I have been exposed to two methods. One is POSE, where you land on the ball of your foot, however their is a very quick heel strike, which releases the calf muscle and prevents that strain/stress from developing. With POSE you have to learn to lean forward with the hips and fall, and then pull your leg up with your hamstring. It gets confusing, and a lot to think about especially when you get tired.
I think the vivobarefoot method is a little easier to comprehend. It involves proprioception, proper posture, relaxation and rhythm (use a metronome to start). You still have to pull with your hamstring, but all you worry about is pulling on the metronome beat and landing softly on your foot. Take your shoes off and jog ligthly on concrete. you land perfect, and if you don’t you self correct. Put this in tune with a rhythm (170-180 beats per minute) and practice. RUnning is a skill. You need to practice barefoot running. You cannot just go out and throw on a pair of vibrams and think you can maintain your old running habits.

Comment by Xfit coach — July 28, 2011 @ 6:08 pm


I love my Vibram FFs and enjoy barefoot workouts regularly. If you are looking for something to help build feet and lower leg strength without pounding the pavement, you will definitely want to check out the willPower method (http://www.willpowermethod.com/). Sole training is an excellent way to get started with foot exercises dedicated to strengthening and gaining mobility in the feet and ankles. willPower and grace is an amazing barefoot cardio fusion class that has changed my life so much that I became an instructor this past January. This has helped me to ease into running with Vibram FFs, and I am not a running enthusiast. Training our feet to be smart and how to land properly is essential to any workout with our without shoes.

Comment by Bethany — July 28, 2011 @ 7:36 pm


I used to hate running. I would do annnything else for cardio. That was 2 yrs ago when I was a gym member. I quit the gym and started my own fitness plan after I became a certified personal trainer. I began walking 2 miles, trying different shoes. My goal was 5k. I would always have knee pain, sometimes lower back/hip pain, or pain on the bottoms of my feet like bruises. Then I tried vibram’s 5finger shoes, even though they look funny and I didn’t have any faith in them– and I love them! Feel like a kid again! (& I am far from that : D) As everyone before me has mentioned, you must begin slowly and become accustomed them-very important! I began just wearing them during the day, then walking for exercise, gradually adding interval running. Foot wear is definitely a personal preference-I am glad I gave them a chance!

Comment by Lisa — July 29, 2011 @ 3:24 pm


I started 18 months ago. The first thing I did was buy a pair of FiveFingers KSOs, put them on, then go for a quick–and painful–run on pavement. I didn’t touch them for about a month. Then I bought a treadmill for my house, and that’s when I really started.

I walked in the FiveFingers for months, slowly over time putting a little running in there. It took several months before I was running even three or four miles on a treadmill at a time in the KSOs. At this point, a year-and-a-half later, I run completely barefoot on my treadmill, and I wear Wave Universe 3s on roads and trails. Wave Universe 3s are a 3.8 ounce shoe–half the weight of KSOs!

Here’s more: http://www.joelbdalley.com/page.pl?58

Comment by Joel — July 31, 2011 @ 3:25 pm


I love the barefoot running debate! I haven’t tried it (too chicken), though I did read “Born to Run” (loved it) and saw Christopher McGougall speak last April at the Boston Marathon. My sister runs in Vibrams and swears by them. Occasionally, I’ll workout barefoot but I’m way too much of a sissy to run without shoes! I’d definitely be willing to run with a minimalist shoe though. Once my current sneakers are done-zo, I’ll probably downgrade to something more minimal (oxymoron?). Thanks for bringing up the topic, Tess, and thanks to everyone for commenting– it’s helpful and interesting to hear from others’ experiences!

Comment by Carolyn — August 1, 2011 @ 6:27 pm


I think that just about everybody, can in the long run, benefit from making this transition to a barefoot inspired gait. I am very much a believer that the human body will do what is necessary to reduce strain and stress to the system. For gait, the body will find it’s own low risk gait. But in this day and age of instant everything we are too impatient. We want everything now. The issue for the transition to barefoot really means that we need to ramp up that 10-15minutes a day in a safe low risk manner. Couple that with our decreasing available recreation time and we have a problem. Barefoot proponents need to stress that the footwear decisions we make when selecting our 9-to-5 casual shoes are really what is setting us up for success or failure. There are biofeedback insoles out there that can be used in those 9-to-5 shoes (see Barefoot Science as one example). Not only are these insoles an excellent addition to any minimal shoe, or more simply put, a recommended addition. This subconscious approach to continually exercising the foot’s supporting muscles is an excellent compliment to those times during the week when we are consciously exercising our foot’s muscles. This crucial aspect seems to go overlooked in so many blogs and groups wanting to transition to barefoot. Most of us also have to be in shoes during our business day so let’s address making those shoes healthier and a part of our barefoot transition program.

Comment by D Patterson — August 3, 2011 @ 4:21 pm


Oh I love when “therapists” of all sorts recommend that ‘barefoot running may not be for some”.

WERE WE BORN WITH NIKES ON??? DID WE COME OUT OF THE WOMB WEARING ASICS FOR ANKLE STABILIZATION??

Everyone just wants to make a buck. For someone to admit that we don’t need any gear to be healthy means they are losing money.

I am a Remedial Therapist with a degree in Human Science, and I’ve specialized in Biomechanics. So yes, I’ve done the research & it’s not going to make an ounce of difference what one person like me contributes to a blog via the comment section. However, I think it’s important that for every “therapist” that poo-poo’s barefooting as a trend, there can be at least my offer of knowledge to those that consistently feel as though there’s just too many differing opinions to make a consistent decision on using barefooting as a genuine tool for limiting injuries that can cause a shortened running career. Listen to the others – start slowly, read everything you can on your journey & get as close to your natural purpose as possible. Back to running without shoes, without make-up, without agenda. Use the limited free time you have in this crazy world to spend some time with yourself, doing something you love (like running!) and doing it without hurting yourself!

Good luck :)

Comment by EK — August 21, 2011 @ 5:31 am


I find it an interesting phenomenon (not much different than when a new exercise video like Tae Bo or P90x, or the very amusing Insanity Video comes out and everyone who watches late night infomercials goes out and buys it)that inexperienced runners are buying into this marketing whirlwind as a magic bullet, a cure-all for what ails you,the next best thing… especially as intellignet adults.

The greatest distance runners on the planet ran barefoot to school from birth (check out the documentary “Endurance”, the story of the greatest distance runner of all time) because they couldn’t afford running shoes and/or it was part of their culture. However, once they were identified as “great” runners and joined a structured coaching group, they were given running shoes and have trained and raced in them since!(train in training shoes, race in racing flats/spikes)

When was the last time you saw a world class runner race barefoot? Which world class runners are setting world records running barefoot today? Teenager Zola Budd in the ’84 Olympics…Abebe Bikila, who won the Olympic Mararathon in 1960 barefoot because Adidas did not have shoes that fit him properly. After the race, when Bikila was asked why he had run barefoot, he replied, “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.”

Good luck if you wear shoes or you don’t(especially if you are pounding the pavement barefoot!!. I always say go with what works, but don’t be a sheep in the herd when it comes to the newest exercise trend!

Comment by Paul — September 4, 2011 @ 5:53 am


Good post! especially for all the comments it generated. It’s nice to read about people’s actual experiences with barefoot running and not just studies funded by minimalist shoe companies. :P
I started about 4 months ago, intermittently running barefoot and with minimalist shoes and I have to say I’m a fan.

Comment by Liang — September 15, 2011 @ 1:32 pm


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Comment by Best Barefoot Running Shoe — December 25, 2011 @ 7:35 am


i love barefoot running! i learned about it while searching for ways to get rid of shin splints when running. i bought my first pair of vibrams a few months ago and fell in love! the key is to start out very slow!! luckily for me i havnt ran in a few years so running slow and not running far is natural at the moment. haha :) not going to lie, that first month or so of running barefoot was a killer! i had maybe run 1/4 mile and my feet were on fire! but now the muscles in my feet are strengthening and i have no problems what so ever! it has even helped me to work on my running form. i was always a heel striker. now being a forefoot striker has gotten rid of my shin splints entirely! i will be training for a 1/2 marathon starting august, my first one, and i look forward to running it in my vibrams!

Comment by ann — March 11, 2012 @ 5:29 pm


prior to my wedding about two years ago, i decided to take up running after being inspired by one of my colleagues who was a marathon runner. i quickly found that typical shoes were causing me incredible strain and pain on my ITB and my knees, which made me quit running altogether for a period of a year, despite trying physical therapy, seeing a chiropractor and trying on numerous orthotics and (expensive!!!) running shoes.

I was pretty disheartened by this, and as a result quit running altogether for almost a year. However, I missed it so badly that I decided to try VFFs and simply started hiking in them to slowly break myself into it. Like others, I was extremely surprised by how much feedback I felt from my feet, as well as how LITTLE pain I felt in my knees, ITB and ankles. I found myself trying to use them at every opportunity. Now, one year later, I ran my first 5k in them. Despite being sore muscle wise, I had no long lasting pain from using them. I honestly don’t think I will go back to an extremely padded running shoe ever again, in all honesty. But it did take a fair amount of time to get to where I did.

Comment by sy — August 16, 2012 @ 10:56 pm


I always wanted to try how barefoot running feels like. My friends are into it, but I’m still having second thoughts, I like my rubber shoes a lot! But they are recommending me try it out and have also told me famous brands like vibram and vivobarefoot. I get kind of antsy when I hear about the injuries cause by barefoot running if you’re not doing it right..So, I’ll have to pick the right kind of shoes and follow the tips you and my friends are recommending. Nice Advice!

Comment by jamie — September 4, 2012 @ 11:15 pm


Huge fan of minimalist footwear. Not up for actually going barefoot; too much chance of striding onto something that will do some damage, but minimalist FEELS better.

Comment by Jonathan Aluzas — September 26, 2012 @ 1:29 pm


barefoot running shoes are dangerous. ive run a handful of marathons and have run for ten years without any serious running injuries. ive never been a particularly fast runner and wanted to try vibram shoes, as the foot strike that the shoe promotes increases running efficiency. vibrams are also super comfortable. i was very careful to transition to vibrams. the first time i went for a run in them i barely ran more than a mile and suffered a fracture in my right foot. i had to use crutches and couldnt run for months. im happy that ten months later im back to running, but i’m still not at the level of fitness i was before. i kept active with swimming and cycling while i was injured. during my transition back to running, my cardio fitness was shot and i have suffered from many other running injuries as a result of not running for several months (excruciating shin splints, achilles tendon pain, tendonitis on top/sides of feet) i would warn anyone against using vibrams.

Comment by emma — January 18, 2013 @ 9:13 am


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