Barefoot (Running) in the Park

by Haifa Haroon on March 9, 2013

In 2010, the world’s first barefoot half marathon took place in India. That’s 13.1 miles – barefoot. By choice. Just to be clear, by barefoot, I meant without shoes –  not the five finger running shoes that supposedly simulate running barefoot known as barefoot shoes. However, the phrase ‘barefoot running’ refers to both running barefoot and barefoot shoes.

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However, not all of us can or want to run barefoot. There’s a process to purchasing shoes. We consider how wide our feet are, their arch, how much they roll inwards when hitting the ground (pronation), the type of surface we’ll run on, how often we run etc. Based on this, we look for shoes with the appropriate amount of cushioning, arch support, motion control features and shock absorption.

This last feature is especially important. When we walk, we apply a force to the ground and according to Newton’s 3rd Law, an equal and opposite force is directed back to us. We apply an even greater force when running (several times our body weight), which is absorbed back by our body. Although our body and our shoes have a way to absorb and reduce the impact of the shock, knee injuries are still a major concern for runners.

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Foot Striking

This is where barefoot running (barefoot and/or barefoot shoes) comes in. ‘Barefoot’ runners tend to hit the ground with their mid or forefoot first, rather than their heel, which is the norm for shoe wearing runners. Several studies have reported that striking the ground with the forefoot reduces the impact felt by the runner. This has resulted in several claims about barefoot running resulting in fewer knee injuries, which seems reasonable enough. However, there isn’t research to support this claim.

Barefoot running also changes your form. Barefoot runners have a shorter but quicker stride. Studies haven’t reported that this change leads to fewer injuries or better performance. Being barefoot (standing, not walking/running) is also associated with improved proprioception – you are more aware of the position and movement of your body parts, like your feet. Although, this heightened sense could potentially mean fewer ankle sprains, proprioceptive ability among barefoot runners has not been studied. Minimalist shoe enthusiasts also claim that barefoot running increases development of stronger muscles in the foot (i.e. intrinsic muscles). However, study findings on this issue are conflicting and again, there isn’t evidence indicating a health or performance advantage to stronger intrinsic muscles.

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Types of Minimalist Running Shoes

A recent study reported that individuals that switched to barefoot shoes were more likely to develop bone marrow edema, which is swelling due to fluid buildup in the bones of the feet – or simply, bone bruises.

Researchers gave 36 experienced (non-barefoot) runners an MRI. “Experienced” was defined by having ran 15-30 miles/week prior to the study. 17 ran in regular shoes for 10 weeks while 19 slowly incorporated minimalist shoes into their runs – run in them for 1 mile and then one additional mile every week. They did another MRI after the 10 weeks and checked for bone bruises, which were scored on a range of 0-4. A score of 0 meant no bone marrow edema while 4 indicated a stress fracture.

The MRI edema scores at the start of the study did not show a significant difference between the groups. The second MRI found that 1 (of 17) runner in the control group and 10 (of 19) runners in the barefoot shoes group had developed bone marrow edema (score of 2 – 4).

This study had a small sample size – 21 males and 15 females with an average age of 26. Although the findings are interesting, they may be difficult to generalize. The participants ran 15-30 miles/week, so we don’t know if novice barefoot runners who run shorter distances per week should also expect bone bruises. Or, even new runners. The results are not broken down to show if barefoot runners who ran closer to 15 miles or 30 miles were injured or at what point during the 10 week period it occurred.

Still, there is other research showing that although barefoot running reduces the impact rate, there may be a shift in demand to other areas – such as the ankle.

Because the study was also done for a short time period, it is difficult to draw conclusions about long term barefoot running. Also, the control group (non-barefoot) ran in their own shoes – which were broken in, while the ‘barefoot’ group were given new shoes. I’m not sure how much of a difference this made, but adjusting to new shoes can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting many of these claims and the unconventional look of the shoes, people swear by them. There are numerous articles  about the benefits of barefoot running and how the shoe wearers are doing it all wrong. If you are still thinking about crossing over, based on the recent study, it seems that your feet may be better off with a very gradual transition.

Emilie Reas March 9, 2013 at 6:50 pm

Thanks, Haifa for a fantastic post! As a barefoot runner myself, this certainly hit home. I’ve read a lot of coverage of the recent Ridge et al. study, and am troubled by their report for two main reasons. Mainly, the study was almost designed to ensure injury in the minimalist-shod runners. Based on both personal experience and the advice of doctors and coaches, I can attest that the mileage transition used in this study was far too aggressive. If you put any runner on an overly strenuous training plan, regardless of what shoes they wear, they will certainly get injured! Second, this is being used as evidence that barefoot running is dangerous, while none of the runners were in fact barefoot. Barefoot running affords numerous benefits over minimalist running, including heightened sensation and awareness that encourages proper form and alerts you to impending injury. I’d love to see the study replicated with a more appropriate training program with a conservative mileage ramp and actual barefoot conditions.

Haifa Haroon March 10, 2013 at 3:03 pm

I’m glad you liked it Emilie! If I remember correctly, the study itself isn’t claiming that barefoot running is dangerous. It may be how it is being presented in the media though. Instead, they concluded that the transition schedule they used and at the time was recommended by Vibrum, makers of the five finger shoes, was too aggressive – exactly what you said. I agree – it’d be great to see more studies on this issue!

Michael March 9, 2013 at 8:25 pm

I REALLY hope they swept those streets thoroughly before the race began!

Haifa Haroon March 10, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Me too, Michael. Me too!

Peter Bird March 12, 2013 at 5:38 pm

It is amazing at how many people are knocking the Ridge et al study with nonsensical comments like: “Mainly, the study was almost designed to ensure injury in the minimalist-shod runners”

The protocol for the transition to the Vibram Five fingers in the study group was followed exactly as it was on the Vibram Five Fingers website. What is better than following the advice and recommendations of the manufacturer of the ‘shoe’ that was used in the study?

So are you saying that vibram are trying to deliberately injure runners? Surely not.

Haifa Haroon March 12, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Hi Peter,

I didn’t mention it in the post (though I did in the comments) that they did use the schedule from the Vibram website at the time – they’ve changed it since. And no, I don’t think either of them were deliberately trying to injure runners.

Thanks for reading!

Emilie Reas March 17, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Peter – just to clarify, my comment by no means intended to suggest that the researchers or Vibram were intentionally trying to hurt anyone! Rather, the study protocol used a training regime that’s highly likely to injure runners. I’m sure Vibram developed their guidelines with the best of intentions, but as the study clearly shows, these recommendations were not safe. I’m happy to hear that Vibram has since updated their advice.

Angela March 13, 2013 at 6:33 am

Thank you for the clear & informative post! I finally learned what these toed shoes are all about! Had seen them around but wasn’t aware that they were designed to imitate the whole barefoot experience (apart from the visual one). Am curious to try them out now, to see how they feel compared to the ‘natural’ barefoot experience. Are there any studies that show differences between the barefoot-shoed running and the ‘natural’ barefoot running? Am interested in how close the design gets…

Steve March 14, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Hello All, I started having issues with my knees and lower back some time last year and have always ran in traditional shoes. I switched to Vibrams in June of 2012 and ALSO read several books in order to change my running style and breathing (Body mind and sport, Born to Run, Barefoot running step by step) and have had excellent results. My first ever 1/2 marathon was January of this year and I did it in VFF (SeeYa LS). I think most of the issues with runners is probably resulting from poor form (heel strike) and not bending at the knee in order to absorb the shock. I run on pavement 20 or so miles a week and have never felt better. I am 41 now, not a spring chicken by any means, but this has changed my life. I hate to see a shoe getting a bad rap when it is more than likely the runners fault for injury.

paul cunningham April 17, 2013 at 2:48 pm

i have tried barefoot running in past doing sand training on the beach and it was very effective ,but its not something, a would recommend, to do back to back days,speed drills in the sand work wanders.

Brandon Hewitt May 1, 2013 at 1:19 am

“That’s 13.1 miles – barefoot. By choice. Just to be clear, by barefoot, I meant without shoes”

13.1 miles running without shoes? Seriously? When I was in my younger years, I used to play basketball without shoes and on rough court. I got swollen feet, wounds, and various other injuries.

Brandon Frye June 11, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Thank you for this article! I have been doing much research on the topic of barefoot running in recent months. I transitioned to Vibrams a few months back, and today, I wouldn’t run in anything else. That is, unless I ran in nothing. The other day I took off the shoes and went completely barefoot. It was awesome. I only went half a mile, but I believe I could go further. Read about my experience here:
Since my switch to barefoot shoes, I have had no injuries. That’s ZERO injuries! I would recommend making the change to anyone interested. I’m looking forward to trying more of the completely barefoot running in the near future. Thanks again for your post!

Mark Lewis June 20, 2013 at 8:09 am

Interesting indeed! I had various niggling knee and PF problems prior to switching to NB MR00’s on New Year’s day in an effort to find out what barefoot/minimal running was all about. My transition was very slow, starting at 1.5 miles three times a week with a gradual build up to my current 6 miles three times a week. I dropped my regular 40 miles a week completely. Until I did an off roader last Friday I had been injury free but picked up a stone bruise under the ball of my left foot. It was painful but, wanting to run, yesterday I laced up my Kinvara’s (previous staple shoe) and ran. Wow, blister on left arch and right knee tight and sore today. It didn’t feel right either, I felt my striking was negatively influenced by the shoes’ build and weight.

I think that says it all, for me at least. I won’t run in anything but my barefoot shoes again and will find a pair that will handle the pointier stones of the off-roaders a bit better.

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