Barefoot Running Benefits — Reality or Hype?

Is barefoot running a passing fad or a lasting trend?

It’s the lat­est fit­ness craze – run­ning bare­foot (or wear­ing the oxy­moron­ic “bare­foot shoes.”  They’re also called “min­i­mal­ist shoes.”)

Some run­ners have become true believ­ers in going bare­foot, while oth­ers are con­vinced the ben­e­fits are all hype.

To help you sort out fact from fic­tion, here’s a sum­ma­ry of what we know about bare­foot run­ning.

Humans ran long distances for millions of years before shoes were invented.

Run­ning was an essen­tial part of sur­vival.

Ear­ly humans used a hunt­ing tech­nique of chas­ing prey to the point of exhaus­tion. The secret to our suc­cess? Humans excel at shed­ding the excess body heat that devel­ops when run­ning. Our lack of body hair and abil­i­ty to mouth-breathe are two adap­ta­tions that allow us to shed heat effi­cient­ly.

In a long race, oth­er ani­mals would even­tu­al­ly have to stop to avoid faint­ing from heat. So ear­ly hunters could even­tu­al­ly catch up to almost any tar­get, even speedy sprint­ers like zebras or wilde­beest.

Barefoot runners are invariably fore-foot landers.

With each for­ward step, you have a choice of two basic gait pat­terns:

  • plant the heel of your foot, or
  • slight­ly point your foot and land on the front part of the foot.

If you run with­out shoes, the bare­foot run­ning tech­nique you’ll nat­u­ral­ly, almost auto­mat­i­cal­ly, adopt is to pro­tect your heel by land­ing on the fore­foot.

As compared to landing on the heel, landing on the front of the foot creates a smoother cycle of impact without an initial spike of pressure.

Land­ing on the front of your foot changes the dis­tri­b­u­tion of forces through­out you feet, ankles, knees, and hips.  Run­ners who use a pat­tern of fore­foot plant­i­ng – with its mod­er­ate impact forces – claim to have a reduced inci­dence of cer­tain run­ning-relat­ed injuries, such as sprained ankles, plan­tar fasci­itis, and shin splints.

Of course, detrac­tors of the bare­foot run­ning craze claim that there are a host of bare­foot run­ning injuries that nor­mal­ly-shod run­ners avoid.  I’m not aware of any reli­able data on the rate of injury one way or the oth­er.

Wearing shoes can muffle the incoming sensory signals from your foot.

If you’re not get­ting feed­back from the mus­cles and joints of your foot, your brain becomes less adept at fine-tuned con­trol of foot align­ment. Your mus­cles could become weak and you’d be obliv­i­ous to the ear­ly-warn­ing signs of injury.

Barefoot runners have been winners in international competitions.

Remem­ber Zola Budd? She was one of the favorites to win the 5,000 meter race in the 1984 Olympics until a col­li­sion with Mary Deck­er side­tracked her (and Deck­er too.) Budd ran bare­foot.

Before her, the win­ner of the marathon in the 1960 Rome Olympics was the bare­foot Abebe Bik­i­la of Ethiopia.

Barefoot running technique involves a different pattern of use of the muscles and joints.

Expect a peri­od of adap­ta­tion to fore­foot run­ning before it becomes total­ly com­fort­able for you.

My experiments with forefoot running.

First, some back­ground.

I’m in my mid-fifties and my run­ning is pret­ty casu­al. I run five to sev­en miles a week at the most, and often less than that. My longest runs are a once or twice annu­al 5K. (And my best time is 28:40.)

So far I haven’t had sig­nif­i­cant injury issues from run­ning. I wear run­ning shoes with straight lasts, a mod­er­ate amount of arch sup­port, and a mod­er­ate amount of heel cush­ion­ing. As long as they meet my min­i­mum lev­el of com­fort and fit, I shop for shoes by price.

I got intrigued with the con­cept of bare­foot run­ning and want­ed to find out more about it. The best way was to try it out for myself.

To begin with, I thought I’d keep my shoes on and learn a fore­foot-land­ing pat­tern of run­ning.

After all, many of the tout­ed ben­e­fits of bare­foot run­ning have to do with the gait pat­tern of fore­foot plant­i­ng, not with lack of footwear per se.

So the next time I went for a 2–3 mile run, I prac­ticed land­ing on the front part of the foot.

That went smooth­ly enough – it’s not hard to do.  It seemed to work more smooth­ly when I ran with short­er steps.  It def­i­nite­ly engaged my mus­cles dif­fer­ent­ly – my calves were work­ing much hard­er.

Toward the end of the run I began to feel a twinge in the back of the calf. From self-pro­tec­tion I revert­ed to my more habit­u­al heel-strike pat­tern.

The next day my calf was fine. I’m not giv­ing up with fore­foot strik­ing – I plan to con­tin­ue with it and see if it can even­tu­al­ly become my pre­ferred mode of run­ning.  Though for now, giv­en my lev­el of com­mit­ment to run­ning, I see no rea­son to invest in a new pair of shoes for the pur­pose.

Think you’ll try barefoot running yourself?

You could start just by prac­tic­ing a fore­foot strike like I did while wear­ing your nor­mal run­ning shoes.

I rec­om­mend you pre­pare your­self with extra calf stretch­ing. And start with short­er-than-nor­mal dis­tances until your mus­cles rebal­ance to accom­mo­date the dif­fer­ent pat­tern.

Let me know how it goes. Maybe in six months we’ll both be out there with those fun­ny shoes with the five sep­a­rate toes.

Deepen Your Body of Knowledge

Shoes for “Bare­foot” Run­ning

Bare­foot Run­ning Books

Bare­foot Run­ning — Video from not­ed bare­foot run­ning researcher

Bare­foot Run­ning Uni­ver­si­ty

Paul Ingraham’s e-book on self-care of shin splints — with FREE bonus trig­ger point tuto­r­i­al.



About Aaron Bynen

Aaron is a health conscious individual living in the Pacific Northwest.

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2 Responses to Barefoot Running Benefits — Reality or Hype?

  1. I have been curi­ous about this. We’re about the same age. I got up to 10ks a few years ago and then plan­tar fas­ci­atis stopped me cold. Very painful.

    The plan­tar pain is gone but I haven’t restart­ed run­ning. I’m won­der­ing if this might help.

    Thanks and I enjoy your posts.

    • Ron Lavine, D.C. says:

      Thanks for your inter­est… “They say” that fore­foot strik­ing puts less strain on the plan­tar fas­cia. So give it a try.

      Based on my per­son­al expe­ri­ence, which is very lim­it­ed, I’d sug­gest rebuild­ing your run­ning dis­tance grad­u­al­ly. I’ve had prob­lems get­ting my calf mus­cles up to speed for fore­foot plant­i­ng — they tight­ened up on me and I’ve had to cut my dis­tance way back.

      Good luck.

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