Barefoot running?

In this thread the point is made that fancy running shoes may actually be counterproductive to injury prevention. Many argue for running barefoot or at least in minimal footwear.

How good is the evidence that adapting to minimalist footwear/barefoot running reduces injury rates long term?

How does this mesh with the conditions many of us currently run in - not on grass or across fields but on city concrete sidewalks strewn with glass and other dangers, and sometimes in the cold?

What kind of compromise should the casual athlete (say … someone who runs as part of a wide mix of fitness activities, up to maybe 10 miles as a long slow run once a week, and maybe once or twice doing more sprint work, the other days doing other things, from weights, to elliptical, to cycling, to swimming, to balance board work, to calisthenics, etc. … I’m sure I must know someone like that. :)) make between minimalist ambitions and the mean hard streets?


Run barefoot on surfaces the foot evolved to run on. I don’t think many people would handle concrete and asphalt for very long.
Abebe Bikila being an extreme example of the exception to the rule.

I would feel really silly jogging around the neighborhood barefoot, plus there tends to be bits of gravel here and there. I have jogged many miles in low-end running shoes with no injuries. When I’ve tried using ‘minimal’, non-running shoes, my knees became incredibly sore. I’ll stick with my running shoes.

Being actually, literally barefooted here in the desert is largely impractical. But then again, “barefoot running” is really a misnomer; even the tribal peoples it is modeled after mostly wear some sort of protection. The difference is that it doesn’t have any padding or “support.” Those are what are counterproductive. There’s nothing magical about being completely unshod.

My personal anecdote is that I couldn’t run. Pretty much period. I would take off from my house in my fancy $120 running shoes and be turned around, limping home in pain less than a quarter mile later. I once gritted my teeth and powered through a mile on a treadmill, determined to finish no matter what. It gave me such an intense case of acute ITBS that I was in agony for 2 days and limping for over a week. I tried everything; inserts, different fancy running shoes-- I even worked extensively with a podiatrist. Visited him 4 or 5 times, had my gait analyzed, the whole nine yards. I asked him about a barefoot running article I’d read once and he literally got angry with me. I trusted him so I let it go. I almost let him make me a pair of $350 custom orthotics.

Instead I just gave up and quit trying to run. I was heavy into mountain biking at the time anyway.

Fast forward about 2 years. The barefoot running craze was gearing up, and it sounded so promising I decided to give it a go. I tried literally barefoot a couple times (again, doesn’t work well here), but I mostly run in watershoes, minimal martial arts shoes, and occasionally some really old, worn-the-hell-out sneakers with the insoles pulled out of them.

I haven’t had a single knee, IT band, or joint issue since then. I regularly run 2 to 4 miles at a fast pace, often uphill on hiking trails. As soon as the weather cools off I’m planning on increasing my distance quite a bit.

As you may already know, Vibram Fivefingers are all the rage in the barefooting community. I wasn’t gonna drop the coin on them, since my $6 watershoes seem to do the trick just fine, but I ended up getting a pair for my birthday. Due to sizing issues and the factory being almost perpetually out of stock, I had to send 2 pairs back and haven’t gotten the right fit yet, but I’m guessing from walking around in a pair that were a little too big that they’re going to be great. I should have them in a few days and I’ll report back.

One thing I should mention, for anyone who is thinking of starting out, is the foot pain. Oh god, the foot pain. My feet felt like every bone in them was broken for about a month. I was ok with this for 2 reasons:

  1. I was going pretty hard on some pretty rocky trails, so I figured a lot of it was my own fault for not taking it easy like every website/book says to do.

  2. On a psychological level, I knew I wasn’t doing any permanent damage and if I just gritted my teeth through it, it’d eventually get better. It did.

To respond to NetTrekker, in my experience, some old dogs can’t or don’t want to learn new tricks. I don’t mean that as an insult. What I mean is that, running shoes have been around for 40 years now, and some people have grown up running in them. Those people, if they aren’t having problems, probably (imo) have bodies that adapted well to them and probably shouldn’t change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

To respond to DSeid here:

Where are you getting that idea?

From the article I linked to:

So in summation, I’ll repeat: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That being said, the hard data clearly shows that the majority of runners today are “broke.”

By the way, when I say water shoes, I mean something like these. I think more people call them aquasocks.

To answer Cisco: You may be one of the few who can run “barefoot”. I’ve never met one in these 34 years. As far as Aurthur Newton is concerned, in those days there were no “real” running shoes and only those who had near perfect feet survived to be runners.

I tried barefoot early in my running days and it was a disaster, lost months of training. I pronate too much to even try to do without.

I do believe that the reason we have so many runners is that modern shoes allow the less than perfect feet to survive the sport.

I forgot to address this. I do at least half my running (probably more than that lately, to be honest) on roads and sidewalks. It’s perfectly fine. Your body will tell you to land softer on harder surfaces. Again, from the same article (it’s a good article):

One of the few? No, my friend, I can assure you you’re wrong about that. I can’t count how many people I’ve met online and off that have been able to run again since this whole barefoot thing got going. I met (in person) a 75 year old man recently who quit running in his 50s and now he’s racking up the miles again in vibram fivefingers. I don’t buy for one second that our feet are born broken; that the majority of us are “damaged.” That’s Nike’s marketing department talking. Evolution is smarter than them.

The Science of Sport on barefoot running.

This jumped out at me:

And don’t forget what I said in my first post in this thread:

When I tried barefooting, I was a new dog and didn’t really know anything about running shoes or pronation or anything really. Still messed me up.

I could tell when my shoes were wearing out as my knees would act up.

I never had knee trouble before trying barefoot.

From articles like this one.

That said I of course am running in the same New Balance shoes for, well, over five years now.

I may pick up a pair of those Vibrams for kicks but I am thinking more of New Balance MT 100’s trail shoes - they seem to be endorsed by the minimalist crowd too and NB usually has shoes wide enough for me.

You’re not the first around here to have suggested the minimalist style. Scylla had advised me the same a few years back - he ultras - I just can’t do true bare and haven’t gotten around to new shoes yet.

The appeal to me is that I know I have a plodding gait, and I think that it is part of why one knee starts to hurt sometime after mile 11, which is part of why I had switched from marathoning to triathloning years back (albeit now I have no events in mind at all). I am trying to intentionally hit forefoot first (slightly on the lateral surface) and shorten my stride to lighten it up but the logic that making those adaptations would come more naturally in minimalist wear makes sense to me. In short, I envy those runners who glide and I am wondering if some minimalist running can help train me to run more like that. Probably even that won’t help me much - I can’t learn an efficient swim stroke either - but I suspect it’s my best shot. And I am stubborn enough to keep trying to learn it.

Running in water shoes blisters up on my Achilles.

I have a large leg length discrepancy and used to have hip and ankle issues from running in padded shoes (and heel-striking of course). No injuries thank god, but pain that prevented me from running much at all. Now, barefoot or in minimalistic footwear, I can run long distances (on my forefoot) without having to worry about anything but the skin on my soles. I’m sold.

I went barefoot a lot as a kid and to me the return a light, bouncy, short forefoot strike felt like coming home. For most people the technique seems to take some time to learn. I had to break in my skin, and the muscles of my feet and lower legs, slowly. But no joint issues at all.

I run almost exclusively barefoot on cement, FWIW. I do a lot of barefoot walking on grass and trails, and I use my VFF for rocky trails and creekbeds.

Zola Budd was a famous barefoot runner and broke the world record for the 5000 meters twice.

But not “soled” apparently! :slight_smile:

Anecdotes are fine, but I am hoping that GQ will produce something a bit more solid in the evidence department too.

Like I said, the logic makes sense to me: minimalist shoes, for brief periods at first then building up, would help convert an over-striding plodding heavy heel striker into someone with a lighter more gliding short stride midfoot gait. But boy, I’d love to know the real data that backs it up. Just because something makes sense and some have done well with it doesn’t make it true. And when I see sites like ChiRunning and boards devoted to barefoot running I start to wonder how much is real and how much is fad.

Also advice: I can probably try on some VFFs at my not too far REI later in the week (they expect a new delivery of a good selection this week) and there is a New Balance store not far from there that would likely have the NB MT 100 trail runner that is also talked up some on the minimalist sites. I do some trail running in a nearby forest preserves, but mostly I run on sidewalks. And I only run a few times a week, once aiming longish (say 1.5 to 2hrs slow run pace), and another time or so for maybe an hour - sometimes doing windsprints and sometimes running to where I know there is a great set of stairs and doing sets up and down it. Between the VFF and the NB MT100 which is better for my running needs? (Humble opinions accepted.)

Did you read the entire article I linked? It has some good references to what evidence is out there. Try Googling if you’re just married to seeing the cold hard numbers on this for some reason. But what if the numbers say barefooting is the bomb for 80% of people and totally sucks shit for the other 20%? You’re still not going to know which category you’re in without trying for yourself, so why not screw the numbers and skip straight to trying for yourself? The numerical data is probably all biased or gathered using flawed methods anyway.

If that’s true, then why do people say that shoes like flip flops with no support are bad for your feet? I’m so confused!

Who says that? Your podiatrist (whose daughter just got accepted to that great school back east . . .)? The salesman at Foot Locker? Nike’s marketing department?

Ever broken your arm? Remember when they took that nice, cushy, supportive cast off? Was your arm stronger or weaker then?

No idea. Never had a broken limb. But I’ve heard people say that flip flops are terrible for your feet. I’ll see if I can find a cite…

Ah. Here’s one:

My old man used to go barefoot everywhere. He was an Italian peasant who got his first pair of shoes when he was 17, though. The callouses on his feet were so thick that the ground didn’t seem to bother him. I figure I could pull off the same effect in a decade or so.