Barefoot Running Benefits. Truth or Fiction?

Why Barefoot Running?

While barefoot running isn’t new, it’s popularity has been going through the roof since Christopher McDougall’s book, Born To Run, became popular in 2009.

Ironically, Born To Run isn’t really about barefoot running. It’s about the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyon of Mexico and how they’re able to run pain-free and injury free for hundreds of miles, well into their 70s. It’s about the first ever ultramarathon held in the Copper Canyon. It’s about the fascinating characters around this race. And it’s about Chris’s exploration of safer, more enjoyable running.

By the way, if you haven’t read the book, you must. It’s a great, exiting read, whether you’re a runner or not. And, admittedly, I make fun of the fact that barefoot runners treat this book like the bible in my video, Sh*t Barefoot Runners Say and the follow-up, Sh*t Runners Say To Barefoot Runners.

It happens that around the time the book was becoming popular, one of the people featured in the book published a study about barefoot running. That person is Dr. Daniel Lieberman from Harvard University and, in a nutshell, what Daniel showed was:

  • Runners in shoes tend to land on their heels, essentially using the padding built into the shoes
  • Landing in this manner sends a massive jolt of force (called an impact transient force spike) through the ankles, knees, hips, and into the spine

Then…

  • Runners who run barefoot tend to land on their forefoot or midfoot, with the landing point nearer to the body’s center of mass (not out in front of the body, like shod runners)
  • Barefoot runners use the natural shock-absorbing, spring-like mechanism of the muscles, ligaments and tendons within and around the foot, the ankle, the knee, and the hip.
  • Barefoot runners do not create the impact transient force spike through their joints

In short, running shoes could be the cause of the very injuries for which they’re sold as cures!

Take off your shoes and you’re less likely to land in a biomechanically compromised manner.

This seems to explain why people who run barefoot often report the elimination of injuries (that were caused by bad form that they no longer use) and, more importantly, that running is more fun!

Now it’s not all as simple as this.

The shoe companies, realizing that barefoot was becoming a big deal, began selling “barefoot shoes”… most of which are no more barefoot than a pair of stilts.

Even the Vibram Fivefingers, which look like bare feet, aren’t necessarily as barefoot as they appear.

In an independent study, runners in Xero Shoes (formerly Invisible Shoes) were found to be biomechanically identical to when they were barefoot.

The key to successful barefoot running seems to be the ability to use the nerves in your feet, to Feel The World. Basically, if you try to run barefoot the same way you do when you’re in shoes, IT HURTS!

Figure out how to do what doesn’t hurt and you’ll be running in a way that’s more fun and less likely to cause injuries.

Now, I know it’s not as simple as that, and I’m the first to admit that the science supporting barefoot running isn’t in yet. But, then again, there’s no science that shows that running shoes are helpful.

Think about this: people lived for millions of years without shoes, or without anything more than a pair of sandals like Xero Shoes or a pair of moccasins. Runners ran successfully up until the 1970s with shoes that had no padding, no pronation control, no orthotics, and no high-tech materials.

The three parts of our body that have the most nerve endings are our hands, our mouths and our feet. There’s only one of those that we regularly cover and make numb to the world… does that seem right?

Put a limb in a cast and it comes out of the cast a month later atrophied and weaker. When you  you bind your feet in shoes that don’t let your foot flex or feel the earth, isn’t that similar to putting it in a cast (or as barefoot runners like to say, a “foot coffin”)?

There’s a lot more on this site about what the benefits of barefoot running — and walking, and hiking, and dancing, and playing — may be. If you have any questions, ask them here, or on our Forum. Or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Pinterest.

Join the conversation. Join the conversion. Feel The World!

  • omaromar74

    I finished that book just three days ago. It was wonderful. I am so inspired.

  • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

    Almost all books that sell 2 million copies are available for a penny on Amazon.

    What, specifically, didn’t you like, Darrell?

  • Janet

    I’ve downloaded a # of free books from amazon and have found many of them to be very enjoyable.

  • Jennifer G

    I have problems with plantar fasciitis (sp?) I have found since becoming a SAHM and spending a LOT of time in bare or sock feet, I only experience the cramping when I am wearing shoes.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      There are a number of doctors who prescribe being barefoot as a cure for plantar fasciitis (you spelled it correctly). Why? Because when you walk barefoot, you tend to ENGAGE the PF in a strong position which actually protects them from the overstraining that leads to the fasciitis. (More about this soon… I’m working on a big post about it)

      • Alan3008

        I have had plantar fasciitis twice (each foot) and it is recommended NOT to walk barefoot, especially in the morning when getting out of bed, but to slip into something with good arch support. Do a series of stretches first as well. The reason is the PF contracts when you sleep and when you stand on it when you get up it stretches out. If it is injured, this makes recovery difficult. Once you are up, walking around, maybe you can try taking your shoes off and see if there is no pain. Once you recover fully, you are good to go, walking barefoot.

        • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

          “Injured” and “tight” are two very different things.

          One responds to stretching (even the stretching that naturally occurs from simply getting out of bed and walking for a few minutes)… the other needs actual time to heal.

          That said, the recommendation about being barefoot as a treatment for PF (which comes from quite a few doctors) is that when you walk barefoot, you tend to do so in a manner that keeps the PF in a strong position, allowing it to heal while still letting you walk and, in some cases, even run.

          • Alan3008

            I was injured, twice. Not “tight”. I never said my plantar fascia tendon was just “tight”. My podiatrist, who was excellent in recommending treatment, was a runner and had PF numerous times himself. The key to recovering from it is to not stretch it to a painful point. When you get up in the morning and walk around barefoot, your plantar fascia tendon stretches, and hurts like hell during those initial steps, no matter how “strong of a position” it is in. The tip my doctor gave me, to step into loafers with good arch support helped tremendously, by preventing the PF tendon from stretching out so much, causing the severe pain. This tip, along with the stretching exercises before getting up helped tremendously. I also did the stretching exercises at other times during the day as well. If you get up and immediately walk around barefooted, and even try to run on it, you will definitely prolong recovery from this injury. It could still heal, but it would take much longer. You have to take it easy and let it heal. Trust me, I know what I am talking about.

          • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

            Sorry, my point wasn’t about you, per se, but about the fact that some people have heel pain but not the actual tissue damage that defines true plantar fasciitis. The tightness I was referring to isn’t a tight PF, but tight calves, typically, that pull on the PF and mimic the symptoms.

            And, I’m not arguing with your experience. Merely pointing out that there are other causes, related symptoms, and other recommended treatment protocols, depending on your doctor’s thoughts and experience.

            For example, check out http://www.drnicksrunningblog.com/how-the-media-is-still-years-behind-in-understanding-heel-pain/

          • Alan3008

            No problem. Tight calves definitely contribute to the problem and that is where the gentle stretching helps.

    • Alan3008

      Jennifer,
      See my two comments below, responding to Steven. I think it may help you. Let me know if you are still suffering from this. What he says is not quite accurate, especially in the morning when you get out of bed.

  • Brandon Frye

    I’ve been running in Vibram FF for the past few months. This is a helpful article on transitioning for anyone considering it.
    forkstofeet.blogspot.com/2013/03/running-barefoot.html

  • FaceThatMeows

    I recently dived into the wonders of the paleo diet, and along with it, natural, minimalist living. I have a lot more energy now that I’m eating healthier, and with that energy, I want to try new activities.

    I’ve always been plagued by allergies and asthma, but I adore the outdoors. I also ran around barefoot for a bit longer than most folks (into my teens, as I had a certain obsession with J.R.R Tolkien’s works). Weirdo, I know.

    But @ 22 I have hip and back pain, along with frequent shin splints.
    I started slipping my Crocs off @ work when I can and am starting to feel that it’s making a difference. A lot more of a difference than the supports I bought have made.

    Thus, my interest in barefoot running/walking was born.

  • Brandon Frye

    I loved the book “Born to Run” but can’t say that it is the reason that I run in Vibrams today. I first began learning the benefits a few years ago by following sites such as yours here. I believe that you can learn so much more from everyday people like yourself and I, through experience. I have been doing the Vibram thing for almost a year now and love it! I recently took off my shoes and went for a run completely barefoot. Read my experience here: http://www.forkstofeet.com/2013/06/running-completely-barefoot.html

    It is true that we don’t have enough data yet to conduct proper research on the benefits of barefoot running. However, it is very easy to prove that injuries have only increased since the birth of the modern running shoe. Like you mentioned, after 1970, running went downhill. Thanks for your article. I look forward to reading more of your work!

  • Katrinka

    Top reason why I want to try barefoot shoes is because I want to improve the strength in the muscles of my feet. The old saying of “use it or lose it” could apply here! I’ve used very expensive running shoes, cross trainers, cheap sneakers, etc. and cannot seem to find anything that I want to keep my foot in! I like being barefoot. I just happened to watch Shark Tank and was sold on the idea. That’s it!

  • Greg Colvin

    This is a gross story but will share it anyway. About 23 years ago I developed a foot fungus in college from playing baseball and other sports. All in shoes of course. I could never get rid of it. My feet were always sweating. I tried many different types of shoes and socks, changing them sometimes three times a day. Three years ago I started going barefoot. Walking and running short distances. Within two months the fungus was completely gone and my feet are dry and healthy. I go barefoot as much as I can. I really don’t care for shoes anymore. Thanks for all of the great information!

  • Neil B

    My brother in Chicago had plantar fasciitis and low back pain. He started wearing zero drop barefoot shoes and he is now doing great. Well, I have had upper and lower back issues for many years. Three weeks ago the straw broke the camel’s back. I was in my car and my lower back was in such pain that I had to call 911 to get help to get out of my car. After looking at the MRI and visiting with the spine doctor, it hit me that I am going to have to learn to take care of myself. That the doctors don’t know what’s going on, they just seem to guess. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes not. So, I’ve been reading a bunch about low back pain and I’m very excited to see how barefoot and zero drop effect my back. I’m starting slowly and letting my muscles get used to walking barefoot more around the house in in the office. Very cool!

    Neil Bernstein

  • Baremini73

    Hi Steve! I am excited and have just ordered my first pair of zero shoes! I have recently change my style of living and started living minimal. I started bare foot style of running last August when I started having knee problems. I usually wear Merrell vapor gloves or road glides and seem to have no problems. My problem is my work ;{ I work in the theatre and film industry and I have to wear close toed shoes since the environment is a scene shop and I’m around wood, metal and equipment that could hurt my feet if it landing on them (safety). Since I started wearing minimal footwear, I am having problems wearing my work boots and usually come home with a sore back, ankles, feet etc… ;{ when I can I wear my minimal shoes on the days I know I won’t be building or welding. Would you might have any suggestions on how to deal with the soreness of wearing my boots? Or know of a way to be minimal but would still have protection on my feet?

    Any feed back would be great! When I get my Sensori Ventures I will let you know how my first run went…..can’t wait ;}

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Think about being in boots like being on a long car trip.

      If you can, get out every now and then, stretch, flex… pee if you have to ;-)

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