Is barefoot running good for you?
Asks Elizabeth from Maryland
Rachel Mahan • October 20, 2008
Running barefoot might be good for the soul, but is it good for the body too?
[credit: 802, flickr.com]
I recently got a pair of gloves—for my feet. They make my toes look oddly reptilian, but the thin, rubber Vibram FiveFingers shoes are popular among people who want to run barefoot while avoiding cuts and dirt. I tried running “barefoot” this way, but the next day my knee hurt and my calves were sore. So was it a good idea?
“There’s no question that you can run barefoot and be extremely healthy,” says Daniel Lieberman, who studies the evolution of human anatomy at Harvard University. “Clearly our feet evolved to run barefoot,” he says. Sneakers are a recent development. Of course, so is pavement. Lieberman also notes that orthotic inserts may actually make our feet weaker.
Previous research has shown that running barefoot requires less energy, and runners tend to land with less force on their heels. Some also suggest that barefoot running may result in fewer injuries.
However, there are not many studies of barefoot runners. And many of the studies only examined people who regularly wore shoes but removed them just for the experiment, says Lieberman. Given this limitation, he is now conducting research supported by Vibram with people who are accustomed to running without shoes to see whether or not it’s beneficial.
Even without conclusive research, some runners just prefer to go barefoot. Websites devoted to going sans shoes cite benefits such as fewer injuries, while others say it’s just more natural.
Many people agree that running barefoot should be approached cautiously. “In principle, the idea to strengthen those muscles is very good,” says Benno Nigg, who studies biomechanics at the University of Calgary and also says he works with shoe companies. But runners who want to try it barefoot should start off slowly. Run on soft surfaces like grass for only a few minutes at a time.
Stephen Pribut, a private practice podiatrist in Washington, D.C., shows some of his patients how to strengthen their foot muscles by picking up a towel with their toes. However, he maintains that “you’re not going to un-pronate your foot by exercising any muscle in your foot.” Overpronation, or excessive rolling inward of the foot, happens because of bone structure, he says. In other words, some biomechanical problems will not be corrected by strengthening the feet.
Pribut, who is also on the board of advisors for Runner’s World magazine and a former president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, suggests that only runners with a certain arch shape should try barefoot running. “Some people’s feet are just built for needing guidance” from shoes, like people with low arches, he says.
Bruce Williams, a private-practice podiatrist in Indiana and current president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, adds: “I just think there’s a lot of hype out there over barefoot running.”
The jury’s still out on running barefoot. Whether your body can tolerate it or not may depend on your foot structure, but there is some doubt about how helpful barefoot running is for most people. Of course, if you do try it, watch out for broken glass and other potentially serious hazards.*
*Sentence added October 20, 2008 at 12:28 pm
Running barefoot has helped me A) actually want to go exercise and B) get stronger feet as well as the other benefits normally associated with running. The human foot is pretty amazing when we just let it work without the “help” of cumbersome shoes. And here’s a link to a story about a guy who went barefoot everywhere his whole life, even while in the military.
Nice article again Ms. Mahan. I was at the Bay State Marathon and there was a guy running the full marathon in these Vibram slippers. It was the first time I had seen them, so I asked him about them. He loved them and told me that he did all of his training in them but avoided gravel paths. I used to run 20 miles per week (of about 100 total) barefoot on grass fields. I felt it was beneficial as a track athlete because track racing shoes have little support or heel lift. Therefore, strengthening my feet in training was important to prevent injuries and tender Achilles tendons following races. I do have a neutral foot strike and had good debris-free fields.
I’ll be looking forward to those studies so we can differentiate
the reality from the hype that Dr. Williams mentioned.
Anyone with any studies please send links to my blog
I am a lifelong running-boom runner, starting at age 14 in 1977. Back then we ran in Tiger racing flats all the time. Over the last 35 years, the running shoe industry has flourished, inflating soles and prices to where a top technical shoe costs over $100!
For the past 4 years, I have been running 20-50% of my 30-50 miles per week barefoot. It has changed me from a heel striker to midfoot striker, raised a flat arch to a normal arch, negated chronic ankle twisting, allows me to run fast with less intervals, and just feels better than running with shoes. When I do wear shoes, they are minimal cross-country flats. I also go about my daily life as barefoot as possible to support my foot strength for running. It goes against everything the shoe companies ever told us over the last 35 years.
The research has suggested and will continue to conclude that shoes are overrated and over built, often causing more injuries than they are meant to correct. Perhaps this is a self-induced market reset, just like what is happening on Wall Street.
Run fast and light and as barefoot as you can!
A peer reviewed article by Robbins actually showed that barefoot activity raises the arch, suggesting that low arches are a result of wearing shoes, not a genetic trait.
ROBBINS, S., HANNA, A.M. “Running- related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations”. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1987, Vol 19, No 2, 148-156. American College of Sports Medicine.
See how I actually referenced what I said with some actual scientific research? That’s what actual scientists do. It doesn’t matter what your degree is… you still have to be familiar with and reference the scientific literature.
tiggermaxcocoa, you just improved the quality of this article by about 4 times.
(obviously that was an opinion, rather than a fact)
This logic of this this article seems the wrong way around, so let’s reverse it; because as manufacturers of an assistive technology, the emphasis is on the shoe companies to furnish us with evidence that their products are an improvement over the default (barefoot) state. The article starts to make sense if you swap many of the references from “barefoot running” to “running with trainers” and visa versa such that the previous sentence is true.
Not scientific, but I too found that walking and running barefoot raised my arches, which in turn meant that my knee caps faced forward instead of inwards! I no longer suffer from knee and back pains that would otherwise plague me after a couple of miles. You do have to start slowly and build up to barefoot locomotion, and of course look where you’re going; I guess once upon a time we would have done this naturally growing up barefoot, but shoes have kind of got in the way! The concerns about hard pavements are misplaced; there are plenty of very hard surfaces occurring naturally that our feet are “designed” to cope with perfectly.
I’d just like to add confirmation of what has already been written in some of the other comments. I have fallen arches and have been running barefoot since the new millenium. Before that, I ran in shoes for 25 years. I, too, have found that not only are my feet stronger, my running injuries gone (except for the occasional stubbed toe), my cash flow improved, and my general enjoyment in running at an all time high, but those fallen arches, though still not of the ballet dancer caliber, are higher with a more pronounced curve. Agreed, a sample size of one. But the hypothesis is now there for the researchers to test.
Actually, regarding the arch of those who go barefooted all the time, there is a very old study from 1905 that showed no problems among a barefooted population. Too bad Pribut doesn’t seem to have read the literature. Study at
Your article reference holds some weight tiger max.
There are congenital deformities genetically linked that also cause
flat feet as well as familial predispositions.
i’ll be posting my review article later in a magazine and on my blog: http://docforjocks.blogspot.com
If Rachel wanted the real skinny on the subject, she should have consulted the real experts at http://www.barefooters.org for her info! There are thousands of members and their families that go barefoot year ‘round, and real medical and scientific studies that not only bolster the position of the readers that run barefoot here, but show that wearing any kind of footwear for more than a short period of time, is one of the most detrimental things you can do to your long term health! Doctorial studies show that wearing shoes make the muscles in your feet, ankles, and lower legs atrophy so that your body is no longer properly supported! Pediatricians on the site warn parents not to put shoes on young children, because growing feet get misshaped by wearing shoes and cause back problems in adult life, to doctors that show that the dreaded athlete’s foot is actually caused by wearing shoes! The site has real experts that take people on barefoot hiking through the Appalachian Trails; written books on the subject of barefoot as a lifestyle; and myth busters that put to death the myths that abound about going barefoot. (Such as: Is it illegal to drive barefoot?)
Oh, and yes, we know about the Vibram five fingers and others from Nike that now push the slogans “It’s just like being barefoot!!” to which we say “No, it’s NOT!” I’ve personally been going totally barefoot 24/7/365 for decades and not only is it better to run barefoot, it’s better to walk barefoot!
(Hint! Your feet do not hit the ground properly when walking or running with any kind of footwear, except maybe some moccasins!)
Oh, and one other thing to those of us that want to protect the environment. Want to talk about Carbon footprint? How ’bout a real one! How much money can be saved each year by NOT buying shoes? What is the effect each year of sneakers and other shoes thrown into landfills? To your health? Synthetic materials used in making shoes that get tossed into the trash?
The BEST Carbon footprint is the bare footprint!!
Here is my anecdotal input:
I am a 55 yr old male. I have been a recreational runner since I was a young boy. About 5 years ago I started developing plantar faciitis, which reduced my running habit from about 30 miles per week to zero. I was not willing to spend money on experimental switching of shoes or orthotics. I read on the internet that running barefoot helps to overcome foot/ankle/knee/hip and back problems. The price was right so I tried it in 2004. I started walking barefoot on asphalt, then running a few blocks at a time, then increasing my distances until I was running several miles barefoot.
It has been an exhilarating blessing to me. The only time I experienced a recurrence of plantar faciitis was one winter when I tried running in my nationally-recognized Greek goddess type shoes. A half mile into my run, my feet started hurting, so I took the shoes off and have never gone back to running in them. Today I run from 20 to 40 miles per week, completely barefoot, all seasons of the year.
My feet are stronger, my runs are happier, and my body is healthy. When I run in winter, I feel that getting my feet cold helps reset my body’s thermostat, so I am more comfortable in lower temperatures in the winter; I keep my home thermostat set at 60 degrees, I rarely wear coats or sweaters, and I have not had nasal infections, colds or the flu.
I wish the podiatry and shoe experts in your article would hold their opinions about barefooting until they actually learned something about it!
Ryan, Vancouver, Washington
There are congenital deformities that can result flat feet. Familial
predisposition and muscle atrophy are other factors that lead to flat feet. The perspective I have is that there is a continuum of various
forms of barefoot running that work for some people. I have posted info on chi and pose running on
http:// docforjocks.blogspot.com . I will have a review article on barefoot running in December which I will post.
correction on the blog:
Hey Daniel, I’m probably the guy you met at Baystate. I didn’t see anyone else in Vibram FiveFingers. I actually use them for about half my training, the other half entirely barefoot. Trails are not a problem in them, as long as you’re keeping the pace reasonable.
I ran a 3:05 at Baystate (far faster than any Marathon I’ve done in normal shoes), and I’m hoping to run truly barefoot at Boston in the spring — assuming I can keep my barefoot training going through the winter.
The difference since I switched is dramatic. I have far less impact on my body. I used to have painful knees, but they’ve been entirely pain-free since I switched. Running is easier, and so I’m able to do it more consistently. My marathon recovery is also going much faster this time, I’m convinced I’m a much more efficient runner barefoot or nearly barefoot.
I think it’s really funny when people who sell shoes and orthotics for a living tell us that there is a lot of “hype” around running barefoot…
Also, when folks say that pavement and hard surfaces are not natural to run on, then recommend that we only run barefoot on soft litter free grass… OK, I’ve run on many trails. Most of our lawns are not “natural”, and many natural surfaces, such as mountains made of granite, are at least as hard as any street or sidewalk I’ve run on.
The problem with running on soft surfaces, or wearing protection from hard, rough surfaces, is that we lose our perception of how our feet interact with the surface. And we lose the perception of knowing when we’ve run enough while starting out barefoot.
Let your soles guide you, don’t block those valuable nerves, and don’t ignore them.
-barefoot ken bob
Evolution did not make us with pants, suit jackets or ties. I not only run barefoot, but I run without pants or singlet. Studies have shown that this cuts down on wind resistance, and lets you get out the door quicker. You no longer have to stop and take the time to dry off after showers, since you will air dry anyway. Less athlete’s foot, less yeast infections. And the breeze feels good all over.
Why stop with barefeet people, take it all off. We weren’t born with it, so we don’t need it. Most fun also, is I used to wear glasses, but god didn’t give those to me either. Now, I can run naked and crash into things. You never know what will happen next or what I can smack into!
Let me add a different angle to this. I’ve found through resistance training that exercises which isolate a muscle group or impair the ability of others to function normally are injuries waiting to happen. The most beneficial exercises are those that stimulate the entire body and allow it work unimpeded. After several months of barefoot running I can appreciate just how much shoes shift work away from the feet to other muscle groups in the legs and even the lower back.
It’s not unlike deadlifting with wraps or hooks instead of developing a strong grip or wearing a tight belt instead of developing a strong core and upper back.
What I do not understand is why there is so much controversy over issues like this one. Seems like the medical science is not very scientific yet.
When the climate and trail allow, I prefer to run barefoot. Just as I prefer to play the guitar bare handed, and not with gloves. I might play the guitar with gloves on, but I don’t like it. I also prefer to run barefoot.
However, I live in a climate with cold, wet winters so I need something to protect my feet from the cold. I also have some very rocky trails that I can walk over barefoot, but when I run over it, I need some protection.
The strange thing, however, is that it is nearly impossible to find shoes, or running shoes, that allow a natural (barefoot-like) gait. What I want in a shoe is:
– to be foot shaped, so not pointy, and with enough room for the toes. This eliminates 90% of all shoes.
– to NOT raise the heel. I don’t like the heel to be higher than the toes.
– to have a sole that is strong enough, but at the same time thin and supple.
There are very few shoes that meet these requierments. For everyday use one of the few are some of the Vivobarefoot shoes, or some moccassins.
For running none (!) of the ‘running’ shoes meet the requierments. Closest are the most minimalistic competition shoes by the big companies. But even better are some ‘non running shoe’ solutions, such as Aqua socks (6 euros, the best solution in my book), neoprene dive socks (15 euros), vibram five fingers (although I personally do not like the feeling of cloth between the toes), tai chi/ kung fu/ ballet shoes (10 euros).
To get back to science: I would love to see a comparative study of four groups of runners:
– Group A runs in “good” running shoes (read: the off-the-shelff Nike, Saucony etc. shoes)
– Group B runs in cheap running shoes (no-name running shoes)
– Group C runs in minimal shoes that allow a natural gait
– Group D runs barefoot.
If we have four groups of, say, 200 (?) runners we may draw some conclusions. Like, explain the number of injuries (I) from type of footwear (F) , fitness level (L) of the athlete, training intensity (INT) and previous history of injuries (HIST).
In a formula: I = a.F + b.L + c.INT + d.HIST
Scientists: please start such a study!
I’m running and walking barefoot after years of achilles tendonitis, which seems to have been made worse over the years by wearing motion control, heavily padded shoes by Asics, Nike, Adidas, etc.
Yes, I’m following the trend.
Christopher McDougal’s book “Born to Run” makes a pretty good case for the science of running barefoot (or as close to barefoot as possible). Plenty of weighing in by scientists, doctors, prominent coaches.
To the podiatrist quoted above I ask, “if there is a lot of hype, name it?”
Give me some examples of “hype”!
All I hear is testimonials by folks who have defeated injury and now run comfortably and happily either sans shoes or in Vibram Five Fingers or sandals or something similarly minimal.
Pavement is a recent development? The Via Appia of Italy is over 2300 years old and was (and still is in many places) paved!
I’m not going to say anything about the barefoot conversation as I think others have done it justice… I will just say that I am more comfortable barefoot or in VFFs that in shoes.
The scientific literature does show positive effects from barefoot activity.
Increasing the strength of the intrinsic foot muscles should increase the arch height – in theory. I have not seen any good studies proving this.
To learn more about barefoot activity visit my site http;//www.americaspodiatrist.com
One thing that should be emphasized is that when you start you will get blisters at best and tear at worst. Based on my experience better not drain these blisters as when punctured, it takes more time for the skin to heal and does not strengthen the skin. Another thing, as said before, take it one step at a time, don’t try to run a marathon the first day.
These are only personal observations, it is still up to you to decide how you want to run.
It’s an interesting suggestion that some people’s feet were “built to need guidance” – surely if this is the case for so many people, (rather than the odd few,) why didn’t we evolve with shoes?
After starting to get knee pain and problems with muscles in the hip/back attachment area, I threw out my hi-tech trainers and switched to minimal shoes – for everything. Oddly, not only did the pain disappear and not come back again, but my general fitness levels (using muscles naturally?) increased dramatically, I found myself less likely to turn ankles in unstable shoes, and my feet have strengthened and arches improved dramatically.
Shoes are not necessarily 100% bad (protect feet from cold, and from broken glass, needles etc in a city) but they’re just foot coverings – people did not evolve to need shoes to run. Best to keep them simple, and uninvasive of our healthy gait.
Yes, concrete probably isn’t optimal as surfaces go, but perhaps we should ask ourselves whether our invention (concrete) is deficient for human movement rather than nature’s (feet) ! We could consider building our pavements from softer materials (e.g. something similar to those rubber-asphalt-like surfaces used in children’s playgrounds).
As for barefoot running – just like any other set of muscles which are unusued, the feet atrophy. But I jumped in the deep end with barefoot walking, with very good results, and on that same day ran reasonably fast for about 15mins to catch a bus! I found I could run faster, and I never went back to ordinary shoes.
What’s more – no more aching arches after a day on my feet!
I first started running in bare feet as an experiment in the late seventies. I examined all of bones in the foot and the range of motion of each joint. I realized that not only were muscles atrophied, tendons were tight, circulation was minimal and there was only gross tactile feel to the ground. People with no arms learn to use their feet like hands, some say it is because they have too. Think of the potential we have if we walked on ‘hands to the earth’. Most people in the western world are moving around on atrophied lower limbs and don’t even know it. I am sure the nerve regions in the brain that control the fine motor skills in the foot are atrophied as well. I will write more about this in a book soon. It makes me happy that there are others that have made this simple but profound realization .
Ken- January 22, 2010
I just wanted to add that I really liked reading this article and all the comments–it’s given me new insight into doing what always felt right to me!!
I, too, suffer from extremely flat feet. Because of it, I’ve found that while I want to run to stay in shape, I can’t because my feet hurt too much. I thought that running on an elliptical would help to reduce shock to my feet and knees, as was the same thought when it came to purchasing a pair of really nice Brooks running shoes designed for over-pronators like myself. I was wrong. The Brooks shoes made my feet hurt and when running on an elliptical while wearing them, I wouldn’t even get 15 minutes into my ‘run’ and I’d start to feel numbness in my feet. Not good. One day after attempting to workout and feeling like a failure because of my flat feet I thought of my childhood–
*quick flashback*: When I was young, I always noticed that in gym class with shoes on I had a hard time running, but that when I was home on the farm and running after my brother or the resident geese, I could fly and it didn’t hurt. I’d run more on the balls of my feet than my heels and it just felt ‘right’. *back to the gym*
So, with that thought in mind, and even though it’s probably against university policy, I set my shoes aside and ran around the indoor track in just my socks–just to see how it felt. To my surprise I ran a half mile like it was nothing!!! I never did it again because I got some weird looks and thought that something must be wrong with me that I can run so well that way.
But just tonight I got thinking about it and figured I’d look it up and see if I was just a freak or what the deal was. I was so thrilled to see that I’m not the only one who thinks that running barefoot just feels ‘right’!!! I am now going to purchase a pair of minimal shoes like the five fingers (only because it’ll make my university happy) and slowly start to run without the typical running shoes. For all I know, it might actually at least somewhat improve my flat feet! :)
“suggests that only runners with a certain arch shape should try barefoot running. “Some people’s feet are just built for needing guidance” from shoes, like people with low arches, he says.”
I’m flat footed – (genetic, my father has flat feet too) and after 3 months of wearing Vivo Barefoot shoes and two weeks of running with a careful forefoot strike in these same shoes I have to say I wholly disagree with Stephen Pribut.
I disagree because I have never ran this easily my whole life, I have long felt resigned to ending up like my Dad with his back and heel pain and arch supports. But now I am running in minimal footwear for ten minutes, 3 times a week I am noticing something very interesting. The arches in my feet are ACHING.
And everyone knows that if a muscle is aching it’s getting a workout.
Furthermore -I no longer run like a giraffe having a fit – my knees don’t click and twist, my frame doesn’t jar and thud.
My calf muscles are complaining vociferously, of course, but then they aren’t used to acting like suspension on a car. I’m breaking them in very gently though.
But other than that running NO LONGER HURTS.
Hi to all, I’ve been reading your comments and would just like to thank you everyone for their words of wisdom and encouragement – it certainly has given me a lot to think about. I’m 26 years old now and have been suffering with flat feet and all the problems associated with it from about the age of 12. I was always told that I got flat feet from wearing ill fitting shoes and from having extra flexible joints. For a number of years I wore insoles to support my arches but got fed up with swapping and changing them between shoes and gave up wearing them when I was in my early teens. In the last year I started playing netball and was having horrendous foot, leg and back pain so I went to the docs who advised I get physio therapy and more insoles. To be honest I never used to do much exercise but did a reasonable amount of walking (“blessed” with being naturally thin I lazily just couldn’t be bothered! oh how I regret that now…) anyway I’m waffling… back to the point – I reckon that wearing trainers didn’t do me much good and all the aching was due to exercising muscles that hadn’t been used that much before. At the time it felt like the bone was hurting, if that makes sense, not the muscle in my foot… Most of the pain I had was the next day, I could barely stand up – the ankle join where the inside leg bone meets the foot was just so unbearably painful… wearing the insoles stopped my arch from flattening to the floor so eased the pain…
As per above suggestions, I’m going to try some barefoot exercising to see how that works for me. I always avoided running as I have knee problems already and assumed that impact sports such as running would make it worse… I’m hoping by doing this it will help straighten out my nobbly mis-shapen legs (this new hope has been founded on the knee caps facing forward instead of inward comment 7 from Adam!) Most of my joints click – shoulders lower back hips knees ankles and toes (not my fingers or neck) so I’m hoping for some improvement in that field too. I’ve been told that my flat feet have caused all my bones to be out of alignment so that’s why they click. Physiotherapy was to give me exercises that help increase the strength in the weaker leg muscles. I didn’t see much improvement after 6 months but I still continue with the routines although not as often as I should be… I’ve also noticed that my big toe doesn’t really do what it’s supposed to… I have terrible balance but if I concentrate on pressing my big toe to the floor I can balance better and it creates a bit of an arch…. that probably sounds so dumb but seems to work so I’ve been trying to work that big toe whenever I’m standing round at the bus stop, making a coffee etc haha no idea if its having any effect yet but I’ll continue doing it all the same!
I also heard that walking/running on sand can help flat feet – as I don’t live near a beach (yet) I might have to give that a go another day!
I’m glad I’m not alone, and I’m glad that a lot of people are seeing improvements from bare foot exercises so fingers crossed I will too.
Thanks again, Lynz :)
I damaged my L4 vertebra and experience neurophathic pain, and had a real problem with wasting. 18 months ago, I had real difficulties walking with my right foot.
Now I run 10 km barefoot most days and often more. The only thing I worry about is the potential for infection, especially Weil’s disease. Fortunately, I watch where I’m going and that hasn’t happened.
Heaven is a little weed and an open road on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
“Stephen Pribut, a private practice podiatrist in Washington, D.C., shows some of his patients how to strengthen their foot muscles by picking up a towel with their toes. However, he maintains that “you’re not going to un-pronate your foot by exercising any muscle in your foot.” Overpronation, or excessive rolling inward of the foot, happens because of bone structure, he says. In other words, some biomechanical problems will not be corrected by strengthening the feet.”
Dr. Pribut is correct. However, you may unpronate your feet by stepping differently due to barefootedness, resulting in changes to the structures (ligaments, tendons, muscles, and cartilage) that support the bones of your feet.