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How Barefoot Running Works

The Barefoot Running Argument
Running barefoot causes you to strike the ground with the front of your foot, not your heel.
Running barefoot causes you to strike the ground with the front of your foot, not your heel.

Author Christopher McDougall suffered such extreme foot pain before switching to barefoot running that doctors advised him to give up the sport. "Eight out of 10 runners are injured every year." McDougall asserts. "It doesn't matter if you're heavy or thin, speedy or slow … you're just as likely as the next guy to savage your knees, hamstrings, hips or heels."

Running shoes are big business, and recent advances in shoe technology claim to correct for a myriad of biomechanical deficiencies, including high or low arches and overpronation or underpronation. However, in spite of major improvements in sports shoe technology, injury rates for runners have remained fairly steady since the 1970s. In fact, certain types of running injuries have actually increased [source: Cortese].

There's no conclusive evidence that corrective sports shoes prevent injury or improve performance [source: Richards]. On the other hand, neither is there evidence that running barefoot can reduce injury. However, research on several purported benefits of barefoot running is currently underway:

  • Lighter footfall. Barefoot runners tend to strike the ground with the front or middle section of the foot, which results in a lighter gait and fewer collision forces [source: Lieberman]. In theory, putting less pressure on joints and ligaments may reduce impact injuries.
  • Improved performance. Theoretically, shedding several clunky ounces of footwear just might make you faster.
  • Benefits to the wallet. Running barefoot is unquestionably cheaper than running in expensive specialty shoes.
  • The natural way to run. There are tons of nerve endings in the foot. When you run barefoot, proponents believe your feet send you on-the-ground feedback, enabling you to adjust your gait to potentially injurious changes in the terrain.

Indeed, the purported benefits of barefoot running are so tantalizing that they've piqued the interest of most major shoe manufacturers. Many shoe companies now offer minimal footwear. The Nike Free is lighter-weight and has less padding than most Nike shoes, while the Vibram Fivefingers is little more than a sock with a bit of tread on the bottom. Before you rush out to try your first barefoot mile, however, you should educate yourself about the unique potential for injuries related to barefoot or minimal running. We explore that topic in the next section.