Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Barefoot Running: Legit or Crazy?

Until about 2 years ago, I had never heard of barefoot running.  I mean, seriously?  I'm not talking about kids running in the yard barefoot.  I'm talking full-fledged running on a football field, soccer field, open grassy areas, or pavement.  Huh?

Picture this: you are driving around town and as you are waiting for a red light to turn green, you glance to your right and you see a guy running...barefoot.  'What the...' you say out loud.  Must be some crazy hippie...

So is barefoot running just some fad?  Is it something that's been brought to the forefront lately by fitness blogs, websites, and major newspapers only to fade away with time?  I don't think so.  And here's the reason why:  It's good for you.

Bare-footing strengthens muscles in the foot and lower legs, helps your body reconnect with your foot's 'senses', improves balance, and takes the impact off of the knees and hips -- all of which are NOT helped, in fact worsened, by shoes with extra cushioning and shock-absorbing technology.  In a study published earlier this year by a Harvard biologist, it was found that footwear alters the normal form and function of the foot.  Think about it and it makes total and complete sense.  Modern footwear has altered our body's ability to properly respond to stimuli and make needed adjustments (tiny as they may be) because the foot cannot sense what is going as it's sheltered from its environment.

Additionally, running shoes force a runner to heal strike (rear-foot strike) as opposed to a natural, fore-foot strike that carries much less impact and collision of foot to ground.  Below is an excerpt from the aforementioned study in Nature:

Evidence that barefoot and minimally shod runners avoid RFS strikes with high-impact collisions may have public health implications. The average runner strikes the ground 600 times per kilometre, making runners prone to repetitive stress injuries6–8. The incidence of such injuries has remained considerable for 30 years despite technological advancements that providemore cushioning and motion control in shoes designed for heel–toe running27–29. Although cushioned, high-heeled running shoes are comfortable, they limit proprioception and make it easier for runners to land on their heels. Furthermore, many running shoes have arch supports and stiffened soles that may lead to weaker foot muscles, reducing arch strength. This weakness contributes to excessive pronation and places greater demands on the plantar fascia, which may cause plantar fasciitis. Although there are anecdotal reports of reduced injuries in barefoot populations30, controlled prospective studies are needed to test the hypothesis that individuals who do not predominantly RFS either barefoot or in minimal footwear, as the foot apparently evolved to do, have reduced injury rates. (Vol 463|28 January 2010 doi:10.1038/nature08723)

Further analysis showed:

Kinematic and kinetic analyses show that even on hard surfaces, barefoot runners who fore-foot strike generate smaller collision forces than shod rear-foot strikers. This difference results primarily from a more plantarflexed foot at landing and more ankle compliance during impact, decreasing the effective mass of the body that collides with the ground.

I started barefoot running about a year ago.  Technically, I'm not barefoot running because I wear my
Vibram Five Fingers when I run on the road.  But I am.  My five fingers just protect my soles and toes and I've not 'worked up' to running completely barefoot...YET!

I'm not a 'big runner'.  Most of my running is limited to sprints once or twice per week with (1) 5k per week.  I am beginning to train for a 10K in July and wouldn't dream of buying another pair of running shoes.  Why?  Because even as little as I've run in the past, my knees and lower back would hurt after running.  Could I chalk it up to improper form and inexperience?  Sure.  BUT, after starting to run 'barefoot' in my VFF's, the pain that I used to feel in my knees and the after-effects on my lower back and hips (infrequent) disappeared. This coupled with my personal study of foot strike, collision impact AND the testimony of 1000's of barefoot runners who run A LOT, makes me feel pretty confident that by bare-footing is much better for me, my feet, and my body than paying $120 to run in a pair of shoes that invoke damage rather than offer protection.

Until next time...


  1. I found Barefoot Ted via Mark Sisson. I have a standing appointment with him during my next trip to Seattle for some expertise barefooting.

    My experience is limited with barefooting but the results have been dramatic. I have flat feet and pronate on the right. I have tossed my expensive Brook's shoes to the curb and have gone exclusively barefoot for my short runs several times a week. The results for me have been no shin splints, better posture, and a pain free lower back.... knock wood.

    As a teen I could easily outrun my older peers barefoot where they would smoke me shod. The idea of running barefoot makes perfect Paleo sense to me and is one that I will continue to actively pursue.

    Of note to your readers, barefooting doesn't have to be naked feet... flip flops, sandals, or any other shoe that puts you more in touch with the ground work well. You will be amazed at the results after a month or so of airing out your digits. I too prefer my VFF KSO's to anything else.

    I have been reading this blog for a few weeks now and really enjoy the posts. Keep up the good work.

    Bill Moore aka NewGuy
    http://www.remakingmyself.com/progress (shameless plug) :)

  2. Thanks for the comment mojo. Let us know how your Barefoot Ted appointment goes and the progress you are making.

  3. That's good to hear about the pronated foot and the legs doing better when barefooting. My daughter's feet both pronate. She was misdiagnosed with "flexible flat feet" and, of all things, a shoe store salesperson caught the error. She's five, and I was anxious about her possible future with knee problems and such. But if going barefoot is possibly not going to hurt her, that makes me happy.

    I have THE worst trouble fitting shoes. I have a high instep. It looks like the Vibrams might be a good choice for me even versus something like Keen shoes--the uppers are a lot more stretchy. Also, for being the novelty that they are, the price is right.