Barefoot Running is Bad For You!

Ever since Chris McDoguall’s book, Born to Run, became popular (interestingly, long after it came out), the debate about barefoot running has become heated.

There was no big argument when Zola Budd ran barefoot, or when Abebe Bikila won the marathon without shoes, or when Ron Hill competed in the Mexico City Olympics in “the lightest shoes I could find.”

But once “regular folk” started kicking off their kicks, it’s become a rhetorical battlefield out there — the converts touting the great benefits of barefoot running, and the critics assuring everyone that taking off your running shoes is akin to playing Russian Roulette.

Then the Harvard study came out, showing that when you run barefoot, you adjust your stride to put less stress on your body. And, right on the heels of it (pun intended), came editorials about how running barefoot is the worst thing you could do… though, most of those editorials came from people who own or work for shoe companies or shoe sellers.

Yesterday, someone forwarded me an email saying “Well, I’ve seen people who tried running barefoot and they got injured! I’ve seen people during marathons, sitting on the side of the road in their Vibram Five Fingers, crying in pain!”

(Of course, right after, I got an email from an Xero Shoes huaraches running sandal owner, raving about how old running injuries they used to have are gone now that they’re out of shoes, but let’s ignore that for a moment.)

Mark Plaatjes, world champion marathon runner, physical therapist, and co-owner of the Boulder Running Company, has said that he doesn’t think most people have the correct body type for running barefoot.

Road Runner Sports sent out an email saying, “Well, if you run barefoot, you could step on something and really screw yourself up!” (that’s not the actual quote, which I’m too lazy to look up, but the gist of what they warned).

The Vancouver Sun recently published an article, like dozens of others like it, claiming that running barefoot was dangerous, and the proof was the opinion of some doctors.

What amazes me about this back and forth nonsense is how enraged the anti-barefoot gang is getting, and how they’ve thrown out not only their logic and critical thinking skills, but how they’ve ignored what every well-known barefoot running coach has advised.

So let’s address some of the issues, as quickly as possible (which isn’t hard, since the arguments are simple).

If you memorize these answers (or print out this article and have a copy in your back pocket), you can save yourself the frustration and/or humiliation of arguing with some Know-It-All who tries to talk you out of running barefoot

  1. Assertion: Barefoot running will give you plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, ingrown hair, or male-pattern balding (or any other injury).
    Response: Runners in SHOES get the same injuries! Those problems, when they occur are not from “barefoot running”, they’re from OVERUSE. If someone you knew went to the gym for the first time, and did the workout that Arnold Schwarzenegger used in his Mr. Olympia days, they’d end up with all manner of injuries, soreness and overall inability-to-move-for-days-ness. But nobody would scream from the rooftops, “Weight lifting is bad for you!” They would say, to that individual, “Dude, you did too much too soon. Scale WAY back and build up to that slowly.” Clearly, the cure for overuse is UNDERuse.  Do less. The only problem is that the only way to know how much you can really handle, is by doing too much… until you’ve done that enough and gotten the hint.I will concede though, that barefoot running form may have an overuse bias built into it, and that’s because the motion of absorbing shock is like doing “negatives” in the gym, doing more eccentric contractions of the muscle. With “negatives,” instead of contracting a muscle to move a weight, you try to resist as the weight pulls against you (think about a bench press in reverse — instead of pushing the weight from your  chest, you try to keep a heavy weight from dropping onto your chest). We are much stronger in the eccentric direction, and it doesn’t give the same kind of “burn” you get from the concentric movement… but the next day, you realize you’ve done WAY too much work. This is similar to why walking DOWN a mountain feels fine at the time, but the next day you realize — due to the massive soreness — that it was harder than walking UP the mountain.Nonetheless, it’s possible to get smart enough not to over train… just takes some practice.
  2. Assertion: Some people aren’t built to go barefoot.
    Response: Not only is there no evidence for this, but what the barefoot running coaches all say is that by running barefoot you develop the skills, strength, and form that allow you to run barefoot.Now, there’s not any hard science behind that argument, YET, either (some researchers are working on it)… but, come on, which makes more sense: That someone is physically unable to run barefoot or in minimalist running shoes (the way humans have run for hundreds of thousands of years), but is absolutely fine in shoes… or that, due to lack of use, they may need to build up the strength before they can run barefoot. Besides, the only reason they would be okay in shoes and not barefoot, is because they’ve transferred the stress that the muscles and tendons and ligaments would have to deal with  if they were barefooted (and get stronger by doing so) into the bones and joints.Again, the message is, Go slowly! (seeing a pattern here?)
  3. Assertion: You could step on something or, worse, IN something!
    Response: Yeah, so?  But: a) How bad would it REALLY be?; b) How often is this REALLY a problem, or are you just imagining it happening without knowing the actual numbers?; c) Are these injuries worse than the various problems people have in shoes?; d) If you do step in poo… which is easier to hose off: your feet or a waffle-soled shoe? This argument, of course, cracks me up since I offer a solution on this website — get some huaraches barefoot running shoes and you’ll add a HUGE (but thin) layer of protection with a barefoot feel.I have to back up to the “stepping in poo” idea, because I just got a call from someone who said they were worried that’s what they would do if they were walking around barefoot.”When’s the last time you stepped in poo?” I asked. “About 20 years ago,” the poo-fearer answered.”Then what makes you think you’ll suddenly start doing it now?” I asked. “Ohh…,” said the former poo-fearer.

    By the way, I’m a bigger fan of running sandals rather than Vibram Five Fingers, or Nike Free, or the other minimalist running shoes not because I sell Xero Shoes, but because sandals feel more like barefoot. The VFFs actually have quite a bit of support, the Nike Free have a big thick heel, and anything with an upper that covers your toes… well, it covers your toes.

  4. Assertion: Doctors say they’re seeing more patients with injuries who are running barefoot.
    Response: First of all, doctors said the same thing 40 years ago when running shoes became popular. Secondly, doctors are not seeing the people who are not having problems running barefoot… because those people don’t go to doctors. In other words, if you don’t know the total number of people who are running barefoot, seeing an uptick in patients is a meaningless statistic. Third, I’ve never met a doctor who asked their injured patient, “So, are you running barefoot or in something like a Vibram Fivefinger shoe?” (hint, most people who say they’re running barefoot have never put their bare skin on the ground, or worn something as minimalist as Xero Shoes.). Fourth, I’ve never met a doctor who has said to their patient, “Let’s take a look at some slow-motion video of your running and see if the real problem is your form, and not your footwear or lack thereof.”

Finally, what cracks me up about the anti-barefoot gang is the simple denial of the numbers. That is, there are a LOT of people taking off their shoes without a problem. WAY MORE, it seems, than those who have any of the easy-to-solve overuse issues. You don’t end up with a movement like the barefoot running movement without a high percentage of happy converts. This alone should, but doesn’t, temper their argument.

And, again, the answer couldn’t be simpler: Oh, if you’re going to try barefoot running, you may need to go WAY slower than you thought, you’ll have to learn to listen to your body in a way you haven’t, you’ll need time to build up strength to let you handle the same distances you may now be running, and you may want to get something to give your sole a bit of protection. Enjoy.

The content of this post does not constitute and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your health or a medical condition.