Barefoot running

Barefoot running
A barefoot runner on asphalt in a 5-kilometre (3.1 mi) race

Barefoot running is running while barefoot—without wearing any shoes on the feet. Running in thin-soled, flexible shoes, often called minimalist running, such as moccasins is biomechanically related to running barefoot, but alters sensory feedback from the plantar mechanoreceptors. Running in modern running shoes is quite different from barefoot running.[1]

For most human history barefoot running was universal, but has become relatively rare in industrialised countries, although it remains relatively common in many poorer nations. Virtually all modern athletes use running shoes in international competitions, however, a small minority of runners have achieved success running barefoot, including Olympic champions and world record holders Abebe Bikila, Tegla Loroupe, and Zola Budd.

The human mechanics of running change quite significantly in padded shoes: Barefoot, or lightly shod, a runner tends to land their feet upon the lateral part of the forefoot, rolling in, allowing the heel to drop, then push off with the forefoot. Running in padded shoes typically alters this pattern, making one more prone to land on ones heel first and rolling onto the forefoot.

Proponents of the barefoot movement argue that barefoot running is healthier for feet and reduces risk of chronic injuries, notably repetitive stress injuries due to the impact of heel striking in padded running shoes, in addition to other purported benefits. While these health claims are supported by some research, it remains slight.[2][3] Barefoot proponents point out that there is a lack of research into the benefits, or lack of harm, of running with shoes on as opposed to running barefoot.



Throughout most of human history, running was barefoot or in thin-soled shoes such as moccasins, a practice that continues in some parts of the world, including Kenya or among the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico.[4] According to an article published in 1999 by Connolly and Cannon, the earliest known use of shoes dates back 10,000 years.[5][6]

In the 20th century, barefoot running first rose to prominence in 1960, when Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia won the Olympic marathon in Rome barefoot after finding that his team-issued shoes hurt his feet. Bikila had done a significant amount of barefoot training prior to the Olympics.[7] He would go on to defend his Olympic title four years later in Tokyo while wearing shoes and setting a new world record. British runner Bruce Tulloh also competed in many races during the 1960s while barefoot, and won the gold medal in the 1962 European Games 5,000 metre race.[8] During the 1980s, a South African runner, Zola Budd, became known for her barefoot running style as well as training and racing barefoot. She won the 1985 and 1986 IAAF World Cross Country Championships and competed in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.[9] Kenyan runner Tegla Loroupe began running barefoot 10 km (6.2 mi) to and from school every day at the age of 7. She performed well in contests at school, and in 1988, won a prestigious cross country barefoot race. She went on to compete, both barefoot and shod, in several international competitions, marathons, and half-marathons. She won the Goodwill Games over 10,000 metres, barefoot, and was the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon in 1994, winning again in 1998.[10]

In the early 21st century, barefoot running has gained a small yet significant following on the fringe of the larger running community. Organizers of the 2010 New York City Marathon expected to see an increase in the number of barefoot runners participating in the event.[11] The practice saw a surge in popularity with the 2009 publication of Christopher McDougall's book, Born to Run, promoting the practice.[12] In the United States, the Barefoot Runners Society was founded in November 2009 as a national club for unshod runners. By November 2010, the organization claimed 1,345 members, nearly double the 680 members it had when it was founded.[11]

One barefoot runner, Rick Roeber, has been running barefoot since 2003, and has run more than 50 marathons, 2 ultra-marathons of 40 miles, and over 17,000 miles (27,359 km) all barefoot.[13] On December 8, 2006, Nico Surings of Eindhoven, Netherlands, became the fastest person to run 100 meters (328 feet) on ice while barefoot, completing the task in 17.35 seconds.[14] And on June 5, 2010, Todd Ragsdale, of Talent, Oregon, set the world record (pending confirmation by Guinness World Records) for the longest distance run barefoot as part of the Relay for Life fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. He logged 102 miles (164 kilometers), or 413 laps on the South Medford High School track, barefoot.[15][16][17]

On December 12, 2010, the Barefoot Runners of India Foundation (BRIF) organised a 21 km (13 mi) barefoot half-marathon at Kharghar near the Indian city of Mumbai. The run had 306 participants.[18]

Health and medical implications

Bare feet on asphalt.

In the 1970s, there was a resurgent interest in jogging in the West and modern running shoes were developed and marketed.[1] Since then, these shoes have been blamed for the increased incidence of running injuries[19] and many runners have switched to barefoot running for relief from chronic injuries. The structure of the foot and lower leg is very efficient at absorbing the shock of landing and turning the energy of the fall into forward motion, through the springing action of the foot's natural arch.[20] It is only by placing large amounts of padding under the heel that humans are able to land on the heel rather than the ball of the foot. In doing so, the foot's natural motion is impeded and the arch and lower leg are not able to absorb the shock of the landing. Instead, the shock is sent up through the heel, to the knees and hips.

A 1987 study by Steven Robbins and Adel Hanna analyzed how the longitudinal (medial) arch of 17 habitually shod runners changed when they trained barefoot over a period of 4 months. The study found that the longitudinal arch decreased in length by an average of 4.7mm. The researchers contend this change is due to activation of foot musculature when barefoot that is usually inactive when shod. They maintain that foot musculature allows the foot to dampen impact and postulate that this adaptation may remove stress from the plantar fascia.[21]

Another study, in 1989, concluded that the only variable most closely related to the incidence of injury is the price of the shoe. A followup study in 1991 stated that "wearers of expensive running shoes that are promoted as having additional features (e.g. more cushioning, 'pronation correction') that protect are injured significantly more frequently than runners wearing inexpensive shoes".[22]

One study shows that compared to running barefoot, running in conventional running shoes increases stress on the knee joints up to 38%, although whether this leads to higher rate of heel injuries is still not clear.[23][24] Correlation between pronation and barefoot running with proper technique (landing on the ball of the foot, among other things) has not been tested.

Michael Warburton's 2001 review of barefoot running in the journal Sports Science concluded that

Running barefoot is associated with a substantially lower prevalence of acute injuries of the ankle and chronic injuries of the lower leg in developing countries, but well-designed studies of the effects of barefoot and shod running on injury are lacking. Laboratory studies show that the energy cost of running is reduced by about 4% when the feet are not shod, due to the lack of extra mass on the foot. In spite of these apparent benefits, barefoot running is rare in competition, and there are no published controlled trials of the effects of running barefoot on simulated or real competitive performance.[25]

Warburton's study was criticized for not controlling for factors such as access to healthcare.

In an article entitled "Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence based?" in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Craig Richards et al.[26] determined that there is no evidence to support wearing "distance running shoes featuring elevated cushioned heels and pronation control systems tailored to the individual’s foot type." Richards found no studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals that showed that running shoes either reduce injury rates or improve performance. In fact, Richards issued this challenge to running shoe manufacturers: "Is any running-shoe company prepared to claim that wearing their distance running shoes will decrease your risk of suffering musculoskeletal running injuries? Is any shoe manufacturer prepared to claim that wearing their running shoes will improve your distance running performance? If you are prepared to make these claims, where is your peer-reviewed data to back it up?"

Also from the British Journal of Sports Medicine, S Robbins and E Waked's article, entitled "Hazard of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear"[27] described their study of the effect of deceptive information on the impact of a footstrike. Robbins had participants land on foam pads he claimed to be either soft or hard, when in reality, the platforms were all the same. The more cushioning participants believed to be under the foot, the harder they impacted the ground. Robbins was heavily criticized for this study, however, since it did not involve actual running (his participants hopped down from an elevated platform), and his data did not fully support his conclusions. This prompted E. C. Frederick and Peter R. Cavanagh, two widely-published biomechanics researchers, to publicly accuse Dr. Robbins of misrepresenting cited studies, overlooking evidence contrary to his findings, and misleading the scientific community with his "outrageous and untenable" recommendations.[28] A later study by Steven McCaw found that deceptive comments about the cushioning of shoes had no effect on ground reaction forces in walking.[29][30]

“People who don’t wear shoes when they run have an astonishingly different strike,” said Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and co-author of a paper appearing in the journal Nature. “By landing on the middle or front of the foot, barefoot runners have almost no impact collision, much less than most shod runners generate when they heel-strike.[31]

The official position on barefoot running by the American Podiatric Medical Association states that there is not enough research on the immediate and long term benefits of the practice, and that individuals should consult a podiatrist with a strong background in sports medicine to make an informed decision on all aspects of their running and training programs.[32] This is criticized by proponents of barefoot running[who?], who claim that barefoot is the default position[clarification needed], and that shod running, which they state as having no evidence in its support, is the practice that has the burden of proof[citation needed].

In 2011, the United States Air Force began development of a program to support barefoot or minimalist running in its ranks. One of the leaders of the program was Lieutenant Colonel Mark Cucuzzella, who won the 2011 United States Air Force Marathon in a time of 2:38:48 while wearing minimalist running shoes.[33]

Many podiatrists, such as Paul Harradine MSc BSc (Hons), have noted that there has been an increase in patients coming in with lower leg related injuries due to running barefoot. The barefoot community has argued that this is due to people transitioning too quickly. With the body accustomed to landing on the heel, the lack of padding on the heel means the impact is increased. It is generally agreed by all that the transition to barefoot running must be done slowly.

Barefoot-inspired footwear

One alternative to going barefoot is to wear thin shoes with minimal padding, such as moccasins or thin sandals, which result in similar gait to going barefoot, but protect the skin and keep dirt and water off.[34] Some modern shoe manufacturers have recently designed footwear to mimic the barefoot running experience, maintaining optimum flexibility and natural walking while also providing a minimum amount of protection. Such shoes include the Vibram FiveFingers,[35][36] the EVO shoe by Terra Plana,[37] and the Nike Free.[38]

Vibram FiveFingers shoes

The Vibram FiveFingers has separate slots for each toe and no cushioning. Conversely, the Nike Free line of footwear features a segmented sole which provides greater flexibility while still having an amount of cushioning. This line is based on a scale from 1-10, where 1 is barefoot and 10 is a typical athletic shoe sole. The Free line of shoes is designed to be a 5 which is halfway between barefoot and full cushioning.[39] Saucony introduced the Kinvara line of shoes which feature a dropped sole. This technology halves the thickness of the sole and removes much of the heel cushioning to encourage more of a midfoot strike for the foot.[40] Extending their line of minimalist shoes, Saucony released Hattori in April 2011 which was their first zero-drop shoe.[41] The kyBoot shoe of MBT inventor Karl Müller also tries to imitate the barefoot feeling with an air-cushioned sole. Following the trend, various other brands including Fila,[42] ZemGear,[43] Reebok,[44] Merrell,[45] and Adidas[46] have also introduced shoes that simulate natural running.

The United States Army recently banned the use of Vibram FiveFinger toe shoes for image reasons. [47] However, many other barefoot-inspired shoes that do not feature individual toes can still be used in its place. [48] The United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, however, have approved minimalist shoes, including Vibram FiveFingers, to be used during physical training.[49][50]


Some people have found that plimsolls are just as effective. Before the modern running shoe was invented, children (through tertiary education) and soldiers wore plimsolls for PE/PT (running, gym, and track & field). Inexpensive "dime store" plimsolls have very thin footbeds (3mm elastomer/rubber outsole, 1mm card, 2mm eva foam) and no heel lift or stiffening, but their low price makes them an economical proposition. The thin sole and absence of structure are what allow the athlete to strengthen their feet/calves and improve proprioception (feeling the ground).[1]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Lieberman, Daniel E.; Venkadesan, Madhusudhan; Werbel, William A.; Daoud, Adam I.; D’andrea, Susan; Davis, Irene S.; Mang’eni, Robert Ojiambo; Pitsiladis, Yannis (2010). "Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners". Nature 463 (7280): 531–5. Bibcode 2010Natur.463..531L. doi:10.1038/nature08723. PMID 20111000. 
  2. ^ "The best running shoe may be nature's own: study". Reuters. January 27, 2010. 
  3. ^ Hsu, Jeremy (2010-01-27). "Long-Awaited Barefoot Running Study Finds Sneakers Are Harmful | Popular Science". Retrieved 2011-09-03. 
  4. ^ McDougall, Christopher (April 19, 2009). "What Ruins Running". Boston Globe. Retrieved November 14, 2010. 
  5. ^ Connolly, Thomas J.; Cannon, William J. (1999). "Comments on "America's Oldest Basketry."". Radiocarbon 41 (3): 309–313. 
  6. ^ , 
  7. ^ Redding, Cliff (July 1998). "In Africa, Sports is the Thing". The Crisis: 62–63. Retrieved November 14, 2010. 
  8. ^ Kerton, Nigel (October 29, 2010). "Marlborough track star's marathon bid at 75". Retrieved November 14, 2010. 
  9. ^ Turok 2006, p. 64
  10. ^ "About Tegla Loroupe". Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation. Retrieved November 14, 2010. 
  11. ^ a b Thomas, Katie (November 2, 2010). "Running Shorts. Singlet. Shoes?". New York Times. Retrieved November 14, 2010. 
  12. ^ "Barefoot Running". New York Times. October 4, 2009. Retrieved November 14, 2010. 
  13. ^ Fetterman, Debbie (January 28, 2010). "Runner still paves way with shoeless approach". Dallas Morning News. Retrieved November 19, 2010. 
  14. ^ "Fastest run 100 metres barefoot on ice". Guinness World Records. Retrieved July 1, 2010. 
  15. ^ Burke, Anita (June 8, 2010). "Todd Ragsdale endures The agony of the feet". Mail Tribune. Retrieved July 1, 2010. 
  16. ^ "Quite a feet: Oregon man runs 102 miles barefoot". Associated Press. June 8, 2010. Retrieved July 1, 2010. 
  17. ^ , 
  18. ^ Gopalkrishnan, Krithika (November 16, 2010). "World's 1st barefoot half-marathon in Mumbai". Daily News & Analysis. Retrieved November 16, 2010. 
  19. ^ McDougall 2010, p. 168
  20. ^ Study finds barefoot runners have less foot stress than shod ones., January 27, 2010.
  21. ^ Robbins, S; Hanna A (1987). "Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations". Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 19 (2): 148–156. PMID 2883551. 
  22. ^ McDougall 2010, p. 172
  23. ^ Kerrigan, D. Casey; Franz, Jason R.; Keenan, Geoffrey S.; Dicharry, Jay; Della Croce, Ugo; Wilder, Robert P. (2009). "The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques". PM&R 1 (12): 1058–63. doi:10.1016/j.pmrj.2009.09.011. PMID 20006314. 
  24. ^ Running Shoes: Hazardous to Your Joints?. WebMD, January 7, 2010.
  25. ^ Michael, Warburton (December 2001). "Barefoot Running". Sportscience 5 (3). 
  26. ^ Richards, C E; Magin, P J; Callister, R (2009). "Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence-based?". British Journal of Sports Medicine 43 (3): 159–62. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2008.046680. PMID 18424485. 
  27. ^ Robbins, S; Waked, E (1997). "Hazard of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear". British Journal of Sports Medicine 31 (4): 299–303. doi:10.1136/bjsm.31.4.299. PMC 1332563. PMID 9429006. 
  28. ^ Frederick, EC; Cavanagh, PR (1992). "Letter to the Editor-in-Chief". Medicine and Science in Sports Research 24 (1): 144–145. 
  29. ^ Nigg, Benno M. (2001). "The Role of Impact Forces and Foot Pronation: A New Paradigm". Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 11 (1): 2–9. doi:10.1097/00042752-200101000-00002. PMID 11176139. 
  30. ^ McCaw, Steven T.; Heil, Mark E.; Hamill, Joseph (2000). "The effect of comments about shoe construction on impact forces during walking". Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 32 (7): 1258–64. doi:10.1097/00005768-200007000-00012. 
  31. ^ "Barefoot running: How humans ran comfortably and safely before the invention of shoes". 2010-02-01. Retrieved 2011-09-03. 
  32. ^ "APMA Position Statement on Barefoot Running". American Podiatric Medical Association. Retrieved April 24, 2011. 
  33. ^ Larter, David, "Almost-barefoot running gains a toehold", Military Times, 4 October 2011.
  34. ^ Hersher, Rebecca (January 27, 2010). "Perfect Landing.". Harvard University. Retrieved June 26, 2010. 
  35. ^ "Vibram FiveFingers Named A "Best Invention of 2007" By Time Magazine.". November 12, 2007. Retrieved June 26, 2010. 
  36. ^ Gauthier, Al. "Review – Vibram FiveFingers KSO Trek.". Living Barefoot. Retrieved June 26, 2010. 
  37. ^ Woollard, Deirdre (March 13, 2010). "EVO Shoes Offer A Close-To-The-Earth Experience". Luxist. Retrieved July 1, 2010. 
  38. ^ Cortese, Amy (August 29, 2009). "Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants". New York Times. Retrieved July 1, 2010. 
  39. ^ "Nike Free 5.0 Running Shoes Review". Running Shoes Guru. 2009-04-24. Retrieved 2011-09-03. 
  40. ^ "Saucony Progrid Kinvara Running Shoe Review: Runner's World". 2008-02-15.,7161,s6-240-400-0-0-0-0-0-1861,00.html. Retrieved 2011-09-03. 
  41. ^ "Saucony Minimalism". Lisa Jhung. Runner's World. Retrieved 17 August 2011. 
  42. ^ "Fila Skeletoes".,default,pd.html. Retrieved 17 August 2011. 
  43. ^ "ZEM Runner Series". Retrieved 17 August 2011. 
  44. ^ "Reebok RealFlex". Retrieved 17 August 2011. 
  45. ^ "Merrell Barefoot Running". Retrieved 17 August 2011. 
  46. ^ Skidmore, Sarah, Associated Press, "Adidas launches barefoot shoe", Yahoo! News, 24 August 2011.
  47. ^ "Army bans use of ‘toe shoes,’ citing image concerns". The Washington Post. June 30, 2011. 
  48. ^ "Vibram FiveFingers: 7 Alternatives for Military". Military Gear News. August 19, 2011. 
  49. ^
  50. ^ Bacon, Lance M., "'Toe shoes' get the boot, Army-wide", Military Times, 29 August 2011.

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