How Barefoot Running Works


Is it crazy to jog around barefoot? Some runners don't think so.
Is it crazy to jog around barefoot? Some runners don't think so.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The next time you're running a local 5K or half marathon, don't be surprised if you glance over at the guy next to you and notice something strange. Though his shorts and T-shirt seem perfectly ordinary, his gait is different. His strides are shorter; he's almost mincing along, striking the ground lightly on the balls of his feet. As you study him, it suddenly hits you: He isn't wearing any shoes. He's part of a small but growing number of runners experimenting with barefoot running.

Skeptics warn that while people in earlier times may have been better adapted for barefoot running, most modern folks would be foolish to hit the streets without sneakers. Sports podiatrist-biomechanist Kevin Kirby says, "In today's society, we … have a lot more asphalt, concrete, glass and nails. I worry that barefoot running is going to produce injuries, such as puncture wounds, infections and even lacerations of vital structures at the bottom of the foot" [source: Burfoot].

On the other side of the debate, however, proponents herald barefoot running as the natural way to run. Author Christopher McDougall says, "Only in our lifetime has running become associated with fear and injury. Do you think Geronimo worried about plantar fasciitis before setting off to run 50 miles across the stone-hard Mojave Desert?" [souce: McDougall]. McDougall's book, "Born To Run," is credited with sparking a swell of interest in barefoot running. In it, he details feats of the Tarahumara Indians, who experience little or no injury running long distances barefoot (or wearing nothing more than homemade tire-tread sandals).

In fact, the modern running shoe has a comparatively short history. For thousands of years, humans either ran barefoot or donned crude sandals. In the next section, we'll explore the theory that humans are specifically evolved for endurance running, most of which we achieved by running and jogging barefoot.

Barefoot Running Technique

Running barefoot on the beach is fairly common, but humans have run without shoes elsewhere for centuries.
Running barefoot on the beach is fairly common, but humans have run without shoes elsewhere for centuries.
Stockbyte/Thinkstock

A curious tradition takes place every year outside an inn in the Welch town of Llanwrtyd Wells. To test a hunch that people can outrun much faster animals over long distances, the innkeeper hosts the annual "Man versus Horse Marathon." Hundreds of distance runners and dozens of mounted riders traverse over 22 miles of tough, hilly trails to see which species emerges victorious. In 2004, man actually bested the horses for the first time.

Such an outcome bears out the theories of paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman and biologist Dennis Bramble, who are researching the theory that humans have adapted to running long distances. Human bodies sport a large number of sweat glands. They have very little hair, though, which allows for the quick dissipation of heat. Humans also have Achilles tendons, long necks, large knee joints and a comparatively gigantic gluteus maxiumus. Though faster, animals without these features tend to overheat and tire over longer distances. Lieberman and Bramble believe that humans may have evolved specific distance running traits in order to chase faster prey past the point of exhaustion [source: Chen].

There are competing theories -- for instance, other researchers point out the fact that well developed gluteus muscles would also be essential for squatting and foraging) -- however, even skeptics acknowledge that the Lieberman-Bramble theory is solid [source: Chen]. Barefoot running advocate Christopher McDougall cites Lieberman's research as evidence that humans are not only fine-tuned endurance running machines, but that for thousands of years people did their distance running barefoot or in the most minimal footwear. Why spend hundreds of dollars on fancy running shoes, McDougall argues, when running barefoot gets the job done and may even minimize running-related injury?

Though barefoot running may seem faddish or far-fetched to a lot of people, there's actually no evidence to support the popular idea that fancy stability or motion-control shoes reduce the rate of injury. In the next section, we talk about the mechanics of bare feet versus feet in footwear.

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.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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.

Barefoot Running Shoes

Most barefoot running shoes are little more than socks with some protective layering on the bottom.
Most barefoot running shoes are little more than socks with some protective layering on the bottom.
Amazon.com

In spite of the purported benefits of barefoot running, physical therapists and doctors of sports medicine are reporting a sharp rise in injuries related to barefoot running. Physical therapist Darwin Fogt and sports doctor Lewis Maharan report that plantar fasciitis, a painful heel condition affecting about 15 percent of average runners, accounts for up to 90 percent of injuries among runners who have switched to barefoot running [source: Fitzgerald]. These doctors also caution that biomechanically disadvantaged runners, such as those who supinate or overpronoate, have no business ditching their shoes.

Champions of barefoot running, however, believe that most barefoot running injuries stem from making the switch to barefoot running too quickly. In fact, they suggest that your first barefoot running workout should be no more strenuous than walking around your house without shoes [source: Morris]. Aspiring barefoot runners should gradually acclimate to outdoor conditions. First, walk slowly for just a few minutes a day on grass, dirt or another soft surface. Gradually, over many weeks, work up to running a couple of miles barefoot on a soft surface.

Minimal running shoes such as the Vibram Fivefingers offer obvious protection from certain common barefoot running injuries, including:

  • puncture wounds and lacerations
  • thermal injury
  • blistering
  • bruising
  • abrasions

However, the very protection they offer may also give a runner a false sense of security. Striking the ground with too much force is a suspected cause of many running injuries. Traditional, cushioned running shoes change your gait to offset some of these forces. Minimal shoes don't offer the same protections; when this type of shoe, it's important to be extra cautious about doing too much too fast.

Whether it's a fad or a wave of the future, the barefoot running movement seems to have sparked a sea change in thought about running and running shoes. In 2005, when Nike discovered that a popular track coach they sponsored had his team running barefoot drills, they developed the minimalist Nike Free. Differences between barefoot and shod running gaits are currently the subject of intense research. Researchers hope the conclusions they reach will benefit all runners and lead to better running techniques and better running shoes -- or lack thereof.

Find related articles and more great links in the next section.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Burfoot, Amby. "Barefoot Running: 2 Sides of a Very Hot Topic." Runner's World. February 2010. (Aug. 14, 2010)http://www.runnersworld.com/article/1,7124,s6-238-267--13401-0,00.html
  • Chin, Ingfei. "Born to Run." Discovery Magazine. May 28, 2010. (Aug. 14, 2010)http://discovermagazine.com/2006/may/tramps-like-us/article_print
  • Cortese, Amy. "Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants." New York Times. Sept. 30, 2009. (Aug. 14, 2010)http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/business/30shoe.html?_r=1&em=&pagewanted=print
  • Fitzgerald, Matt. "Barefoot Running Injury Epidemic." Runing.competitor.com. May 27, 2010. (Aug. 14, 2010)http://running.competitor.com/2010/05/features/the-barefoot-running-injury-epidemic_10118
  • Lieberman, Venkadesen, Werbel and others. "Foot Strike Patterns and Collision Forces in Habitually Barefoot Runners." Nature. Jan. 28, 2010. (Aug. 14, 2010)http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20111000
  • McDougall, Christopher. "Born to Run." Alfred A. Knopf. 2009. (Aug. 14, 2010)http://www.amazon.com/Born-Run-Hidden-Superathletes-Greatest/dp/0307266303
  • McDougall, Christopher. "The Barefoot Running Debate." Christophermcdougall.com. 2010. (Aug. 14, 2010)http://www.chrismcdougall.com/barefoot.html
  • Morris, Rick. "Getting Started with Barefoot Running - the Bare Basics." runningplanet.com. 2010. (Aug. 14, 2010)http://www.runningplanet.com/training/getting-started-barefoot-running-the-bare-basics.html
  • Reynolds, Gretchen. "Phs. Ed: Is Running Barefoot Better for You?" New York Times. Oct. 21, 2009. (Aug. 14, 2010)http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/21/phys-ed-is-running-barefoot-better-for-you/?scp=4&sq=barefoot%20running&st=cse
  • Richads, Magin, Callister. "Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence-based?" British Journal of Sports Medicine. March 26, 2008. (Aug. 14, 2010)http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/43/3/159.short