Is Barefoot Running Really Better For You?

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What if I told you running barefoot was a safer than wearing the latest $200 state-of-the-art, clinically-designed running shoe…is that something you might be interested in?

Sounds ridiculous, right? You’d might even call me crazy, which would then make you crazy by default because you’re yelling at your computer…either way I win.

Now, what if I told you Ethiopian Abebe Bikila ran a world-record 2:15:17 marathon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome…barefoot. Starting to at least see there may be some truth to this madness?  I want to discuss my the pros and cons of ditching your shoes, my experiences with running barefoot, and then teach you HOW to run barefoot if you’re will to give it a shot.

How I ended up barefoot…kinda

I few months ago, I went to the local Nike Store and picked up a pair of expensive running shoes designed to provide the “most support and padding.” As I was walking to the checkout counter, I walked past a pair of Nike Free shoes. They looked interesting, so I asked about them; the lady behind the counter responded: “oh, those are shoes meant to mimic barefoot running, which means you have practically no padding under your feet.  They’re pretty uncomfortable.”  I shrugged my shoulders, then bought my new kicks.

Fast-forward a month: my buddy Saint up in Massachusetts, the one who lost 33 pounds in 12 weeks, tells me about these funky feet-glove things called Vibram Five-Finger shoes (pictured below).  A few quick searches on the internet leads me to stories and stories and stories about how amazing they are.  In fact, Tim Ferriss, life hacker extraordinaire, wrote quite the article on these shoes, explaining they cured his chronic back pain in a matter of weeks.  They looked ridiculous, and they sounded too good to be true – I went out and picked up a pair the next day.

It’s now been two months, and my $100 running shoes are collecting dust in the closet. I wear my Vibrams to the gym every day and on an occasional jog (which I actually ENJOY now).  The first time I went running “barefoot,” my entire running style had somehow changed immediately.  I no longer took long strides and landed on my heels; instead, I took short powerful strides and landed as softly as possible on the balls of my feet.  This wasn’t done intentionally, it’s just kind of how my body adapted to running barefoot.  Considering my form changed instantly, everything suddenly clicked: this is how we are naturally designed to run!

My excitement at this ‘discovery’ was quickly overshadowed by the pain in my calves.  Despite only running for 10 minutes, it was apparently enough to keep my calves sore for many days afterward.  Why?  Thanks to modern running shoes, our feet, Achilles tendons, and calves have essentially atrophied from non-use. Remember the scene in the Matrix where Neo wakes up for the first time in the “real world” and asks Morpheus, “Why do my eyes hurt?” Do you remember Morpheus’s response?

“Because you’ve never used them before.”

Whoa.

Vibram-Five-Fingers

Barefoot Goes Mainstream

Now, the barefoot running concept has been around for quite a while (thousands and thousands of years to be exact), but thanks to books like Born to Run (which I reviewed here), recent articles in the New York Times, and products like FiveFingers shoes, the concept of barefoot running is coming out of the shadows and back into the spotlight.

According to Chris McDougal, author of Born To Run, injury rates among runners has remained virtually unchanged despite thirty years of technological advancements and hundreds of clinical studies and “improvements.”  Why is it that we can put man on the moon, clone sheep, and create the internet (thanks Al Gore!) but we can’t cut down on running injuries? Why is it that Nike has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing the world’s most comfortable running shoes, and then suddenly decides to develop a shoe at the other end of the spectrum (the Nike Free) with virtually no padding?  My guess is that they might have discovered that their shoes are possibly doing more harm than good.  Can that be proven though?  That’s what I wanted to know.

Studies on Barefoot Running

Before I went out and purchased my crazy ninja-gorilla shoes, I made sure to do the proper research and make sure they’re the real deal.  I found testimonial after testimonial of people whose chronic injuries disappeared and running times improved since switching to barefoot.  However, I wanted to track down some actual statistics and scientific studies to support all of these stories.

According to This Australian study:

  • Running in shoes appears to increase the risk of ankle sprains, either by decreasing awareness of foot position or by increasing the twisting torque on the ankle during a stumble.
  • Running in shoes appears to increase the risk of plantar fasciitis and other chronic injuries of the lower limb by modifying the transfer of shock to muscles and supporting structures.

 

My take: Although I haven’t done extensive long-distance running barefoot myself, I’ve done enough to understand why these conclusions make sense.  Add my experiences with the thousands and thousands of people who have become injury-free since making the switch and I can’t help but believe these barefoot people are onto something.  The author of the study goes on to say that more studies must be completed as the studies that were completed in developing countries had too many variables to be considered 100% factual proof.  However, I will bet my life savings (currently $12.30; $6.30 if I decide to eat lunch today) that more controlled studies from the United States are right around the corner.

I still wanted more proof, so I stumbled across this great marathon article: Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University (oooooooh, nerd alert):

When you walk, you land on your heel, but during running you land toward the middle of your foot on your plantar arch.  The arch acts as a spring, stretching and then recoiling, not only helping to cushion the impact of the collision with the ground, but also to help push the body into the air. Laboratory studies show that the plantar arch alone returns at least 17 percent of the energy of impact. Running shoes have largely replaced our arches, but they are neither as effective nor as durable. Barefoot runners can clearly do as well as shod runners, but it takes time to develop the strength in the foot to use our natural arch fully.

Lieberman then goes on to say that “people don’t run barefoot any more simply because they don’t have to,” he said. “The barefoot running movement is wonderful evidence of how good the human foot is for doing one of the most natural and fundamental of all human activities—endurance running.”

Alongside all the anecdotal evidence, these are two pretty strong cases in favor of ditching your shoes. However, there are certainly plenty of reasons why you SHOULDN’T run barefoot.  In the spirit of good discussion, I’m hoping this becomes the greatest debate since Frank the Tank defeated James Carville on the topic of the government’s role in supporting innovation in the field of biotechnology.  On with the negatives!

What’s Wrong With Barefoot Running?

For every person that shouts the benefits of running barefoot, there are 10 people ready to explain why it’s such a ridiculous concept.  If you take a look at the previously stated New York Times article, a majority of the comments at the end of the article come from people who have tried running sans shoes and love it, or they come from people who immediately discredit it despite having never tried it.  Some of those arguments are below:

Argument: Your feet are going to get destroyed – sure we might have adapted to run barefoot through thousands of years of evolution, but our feet haven’t adjusted to modern technology and surfaces like concrete and asphalt. Factor in loose rocks, garbage, dog sh*t, etc. and running barefoot is NOT smart.

Counterargument: Fair point.  However, if you start paying attention to where you are running you won’t have these problems.  If you are concerned with stepping on infectious stuff, try a pair of Vibram Five Finger shoes, which have a thick tough underskin to protect you from debris.  I have been running on asphalt, but I can see how running on concrete could cause problems.

Argument: It’s too damn cold to run barefoot.  My feet will get frosbite.

Counterargument: I completely agree, which makes me sad because I like running barefoot.  I think I’m going to get a pair of low heel running shoes for the winter because I don’t want my toes to freeze.

Argument: “If running barefoot is so great, why aren’t barefoot runners setting records?” The same NYT article cited a race in which none of the runners who mimicked a barefoot style (type of stride and foot-placement) won.  They concluded from this study that this style of running does not make you faster.

Counterargument: I think this article is ridiculous for using this as a source, as it’s not whether or not they win, but if they’re run faster relative to themselves.  Sure the people with the barefoot style might not have won, but they might have finished faster than if they had run with a more conventional style.  The winners of the race might have run even FASTER if they had been training barefoot style, or they could have been slower.  We don’t know.  Essentially, this ‘source’ is full of holes and variables and cannot be used to either credit or discredit barefoot running.

Argument: “What about flat footed people? Without special orthopedics your foot will get even more mangled.”

Counterargument: I need to find more studies to support this theory, but if we are to believe Tim Ferriss (and I do trust the man): “[going ‘barefoot’ in the Vibrams] has been nothing short of spectacular for me, despite my history of flat feet.  I’ve found that my arches, and foot as a whole, feels better with less support rather than more.”

I’m sure there are quite a few more reasons to keep your uber-comfortable Nikes, so please post your arguments in the comments.

Why I Support Barefoot Running

After reading countless studies, dozens and dozens of articles, and speaking with tons of people about their experiences with running barefoot, I decided to throw caution into the wind and take the plunge.  Since making the switch, I have become a full time convert.  Other than the articles stated above, here are my reasons:

  • It makes sense to me! We’ve survived as a species for untold millennia without the use of shoes.  It’s only in the past 30+ years that we have decide to move away from unpadded shoes, trying to fix what wasn’t broken.  I ran cross-country for a year in high school and dealt with shin splints on a weekly basis: I haven’t had one issue since switching to barefoot running other than sore calves, which is already getting better
  • It’s fun, and it gets me running. I hate running, but now that I have these Vibrams I actually enjoy it.  I’m even considering running a 5k or 10k in them to raise money for a charity.
  • It makes sense for training. I exercise in my Vibrams for the same reason I use free weights instead of exercise machines at the gym. When you use machines, your movement is limited in two directions, robbing you of the use of all of your stabilizer muscles to keep things steady. Running in sneakers is no different. There are 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles and tendons in the human foot. When you wear shoes, those muscles don’t get used. Running barefoot builds strength in your feet, ankles, and calves.
  • My only problem with Vibram Five-Finger shoes: I can’t get my damn workouts done, because I have to take out my headphones every three seconds to explain to somebody new why I’m wearing gorilla-feet.

How to Run Barefoot

Okay, so hopefully now you’re at least willing to give this crazy concept a shot. First things first: you aren’t just changing your shoes.  You are changing your running STYLE too, which will keep you from getting injured. Rather than try to explain it to you myself, I’ll borrow from the guys who know what they’re doing:

The barefoot running technique has been described as falling forward. It has also been described as gently kissing the ground with the balls of your feet. If you need one more concept to meditate on while running barefoot, imagine that a log is lying across the path in front of you; you don’t want to kick the front of the log with your toes. You want to step over the log with each step, keeping your knee bent and placing the ball of your foot immediately behind the log as your chest moves over the top of it.

Here’s a video from Chris McDougal, author of Born to Run. Watch the video and notice how different his running style probably is from yours:


Born to Run

Chris recently wrote a Men’s Health Article on how to run barefoot – “Imagine your kid is running into the street and you have to sprint after her in bare feet,” he says. That’s the visual: “You’d automatically lock into perfect form — you’d be up on your forefeet, with your back erect, head steady, arms high, elbows driving, and feet touching down quickly on the forefoot and kicking back toward your butt.” And then, to build the strength and balance to maintain that form over long distances, use the heel, hips, and hills principle.

  1. Wear the most neutral, low-heeled running shoe that feels comfortable.
  2. Keep your hips dead under your shoulders and dead above your feet.
  3. Use big hills to iron out the rest of the wrinkles. “You can’t run uphill powerfully with poor bio-mechanics,” Orton says. “Just doesn’t work. If you try landing on your heel with a straight leg, you’ll tip over backward.”

Some Precautions

Don’t forget Neo, you’re opening your eyes for the first time.  Here are some tips for ya:

  • Take it slow. Try 5-10 minutes a day of walking barefoot, work your way up to 10-15 minutes of jogging every 3 days, and eventually get back to your normal jogging routine. If you try to push it too hard too quickly, you can do some serious damage to your feet and calves which will keep you off the roads for quite a while.
  • Stretch! Make sure you stretch after each walk and run.  This will help eliminate the crazy soreness after the first few rounds.
  • Try Vibrams if you’re afraid of running completely barefoot.  I went with the black Vibram KSO’s, as they looked the most normal.
  • Take a look at these shoes if you’re running in bad weather. If you can’t run barefoot, you can still work on your barefoot running style.
  • Run on grass when possible, go with asphalt over concrete. Get started on grass if possible, as that will provide the most cushion when you’re just starting out.  However, running on tough surfaces will certainly make you adjust that running style quickly!
  • Have fun with it. I run “barefoot” because it gets me excited about running.  Whatever it takes to get you off your ass and out of the house, go with that: shoes or no shoes, I don’t care.

Yup, that was definitely the longest post I have ever written. If you’re still awake at this point, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  If you’ve tried running barefoot and loved it, tell the world.  If you’ve tried it and hated it, I want to know about it.  Think the studies above are full of crap?  Explain why!

What say you, NF Community?  Barefoot: yay or nay?

-Steve

Additional barefoot resources:

Picture from: Nicholas_T

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