Dare to Bare: The Truth about Barefoot Running (Preview)

We investigate whether the key to better running is really what you wear – or don’t wear – on your feet

by Sam Murphy

barefoot running

The barefoot movement is gathering pace, promising closer connection to the terrain and our evolutionary heritage. But is the key to better running really what you wear – or don’t wear – on your feet?

As we buy into the seductive promise of the ‘barefoot revolution’, the shoe manufacturers who sold – and still sell – cushioning and motion-control footwear are jumping fully on board.

This seemingly uneasy alliance has created a barefoot/minimalist industry worth £1.1 billion, but the question remains: does the secret to better running really lie inside a shoebox?

A barefoot gathering

Stepping on to a New York ferry, I breathe in the crisp, fresh autumn air. I’m heading out to the island where my race begins – but it’s not the race you’re thinking of. A far cry from the 45,000-strong field of the NYC Marathon, this event – the New York City Barefoot Run – is on a rather smaller scale. But the fact that it’s happening at all, attracting over 400 runners in its second year, is testament to the recent revolution in our sport; a revolution that has seen many – myself included – swap their cushioned or motion-control shoes for barely-there minimalist footwear – or indeed, shun shoes altogether.
I’m in good company. Among those boarding the ferry are Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and co-author of a landmark paper, published in the journal Nature, outlining the evidence that shows humans were ‘born to run’.

Talking of Born to Run (£8.99, Profile Books), the author, Chris McDougall, is also with me, chatting to Barefoot Ted, who stars in the book, and legendary barefoot running coach Lee Saxby, who McDougall credits for ridding him of injuries.

The key players

It’s a Who’s Who of the barefoot scene’s leading lights and, unsurprisingly, talk centres on barefoot running. How long it takes to adapt. How it’s enabled someone perennially injured to run pain-free. The best surface to run on. Whether or not Nike Free really qualifies as a minimal shoe. Which gyms are sniffy about letting you run barefoot on the treadmill. (“By next summer this argument will be over,” opines McDougall. “They’ll be falling over themselves to teach barefoot running, not banning it.”). There’s no ‘Why?’ or ‘Should I?’ being asked here today – it’s all ‘How?’ and ‘How long?’ and ‘How far?’

This is a refreshing change from the scepticism, bemusement or downright hostility that barefoot running often elicits. But Lieberman believes scepticism should be encouraged. “People are suspicious about what the shoe companies have been saying, but they need to be suspicious about what the barefooters and minimalist shoe manufacturers are saying, too,” he says. “There are a lot of opinions and very few facts about most things in running, and barefoot running is no exception. More research is needed.”

That may come as a surprise. It’s easy to assume, given all the media hullabaloo, that dozens of papers have been published proving that barefoot running is ‘better’ in every way – the answer to a whole litany of injury problems and even the key to improved performance. But whatever the growing number of barefoot aficionados and minimalist shoe manufacturers would have you believe, that isn’t the case.

“‘Is barefoot better?’ is the wrong question to ask,” says Lieberman. “The issue isn’t whether you run barefoot or not, but how you run – your form.”

Back to our roots

There’s a 20-minute walk to the start line when we land on Governors Island. Hundreds of soles pad silently along the asphalt road, gathering for the pre-event briefing under a huge banner brandishing the ‘I love NY’ logo – the heart replaced by a bare footprint.

The Statue of Liberty looms proudly across the glittering bay. “Welcome back,” says John Durant, event organiser and founder of Barefoot Runners NYC. “And I mean that, even if you weren’t here last year. Welcome back to natural human movement.”

The New York City Barefoot Run isn’t a race, as such. There are no timing chips, no clocks and not even a set distance, but my pre-race butterflies are still all aflutter. My husband Jeff, a competitive runner, is bemused by the ‘as many laps as you like’ format. I know it’s not just about winning, he says, but people like to know how they performed and make comparisons.

McDougall is more enthusiastic: “I think this will be the next wave,” he says, between signing well-thumbed copies of his book and doling out temporary tattoos. “Look around you, everyone’s smiling. Competition makes people anxious and encourages them to do too much.”

It’s true that there’s more emphasis on fun and freedom in barefoot running. As the race gets under way, I don’t see many people setting their Garmins or elbowing their way to the front. Barefoot Ted isn’t even going in the right direction, choosing instead to whisk people anticlockwise around the course in a foot-powered rickshaw. “It’s all about testing the limits of what’s pleasurable, not what’s possible,” he says.

I can see the appeal of getting in touch with nature and making running more playful, but both as a runner and a coach, what lured me in was the idea of running more efficiently and without injury.

In pursuit on an injury-free run

My barefoot journey began back in 2007 when researching an article on whether or not it was possible to change the way you run. I tinkered with my own form, switching from a heel strike to a forefoot strike and, as I did so, I started to find my usual shoes cumbersome and heavy. I began to wear lighter, more pared-down shoes.

My PBs over 10K, 10 miles and the half marathon all improved over the next couple of years (despite having already been running for 17 years) and my mileage soared. But then injury struck: plantar fasciitis.

In my efforts to get rid of it, I tried everything – stretches, exercises, orthotics, injections, stability shoes – but when none of it worked, I resolved to rebuild my form from the ground up. And that meant going barefoot. There’s nowhere to hide poor technique when your feet are bare, I figured.

It’s a theory backed by Lieberman’s research. In 2010, he published a study showing that habitually barefoot people run differently from those accustomed to wearing running shoes. For a start, they tend to land on their forefoot or midfoot rather than their heels (where 75 per cent of shod runners land).

Secondly, they land more softly, generating smaller initial impact forces than heel strikers wearing shoes, in spite of the absence of cushioning. They also have greater springiness (or ‘compliance’) and less stiffness in their stride.

Subscribers can find out more about Sam Murphy's barefoot journey, minimalist shoes and the essential getting-started barefoot facts in the full article. Not a magazine subscriber? Subscribe online now to make a significant saving on the newsstand price.

Discover the answers to the essential barefoot questions or perfect your form with key barefoot exercises.

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Discuss this article

Good article, do you do any mobility for your feet, to re-educate them? Such as Zhealth or similar?
Posted: 05/03/2012 at 18:43

Great article. Back in the Day when we fought the Boar we would run for miles Barefoot tracking their every movement, because that's how Shaka said it had to be.
Posted: 05/03/2012 at 21:03

if you want to get yourself some plantar fascittis, I recommend steaming into a barefoot running career post haste!
Posted: 05/03/2012 at 21:04

@Stevie G. 

Shame you has to be negative instead of helpful, I took me 3 month to get comfortable running barefoot. Check the article on how to ease into barefoot running the tips are well done. 

Posted: 06/03/2012 at 18:28

Good info and very true. It's not about the shoes it's about form. We need to learn HOW to achieve such and this is first and foremost a matter of better perception. We need to become aware of our actions, posture, application of bodyweight etc.. Good and bad, as only the ability to detect the differences of our actions in relation to the running movement, will enable us to change our running in the aimed direction. Correct movement needs many repetitions together with good focus (awareness) to help the brain to memorize the neurologic patterns necessary for good movement. Video example of athletes running in BF shoes without good skill; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpLTZp6xr0g

Happy running! 

Posted: 06/03/2012 at 19:33

Stevie G is right. I had shin splints about 2 years ago so switched to barefoot shoes. This sorted the shin splints but after 6 months gave me plantar fascilitis. This has taken me a year to sort out! I'm back to traditional running shoes and so far so good.
Posted: 06/03/2012 at 20:42

I have been experimenting with bare foot running for about three months now, due to recurrent knee injury. Surely common sense dictates that you should ease yourself into any new form of exercise, including a new way to run. I have essentially found that bare foot running is using a whole new muscle group i never knew i had. As a consequence i have been easing in with short runs of anything from 400m to 2K in order to let the muscles develop slowly, hopefully minimising the risk of injury. I have to say so far so good, and basically it's good to give something new a go, no?
Posted: 06/03/2012 at 20:46

Personal experience: going minimalist gave me a stress fractured metatarsal.

Bad advice and wrong shoes for me. Too much of a change for my delicate little piggies. 

Posted: 06/03/2012 at 21:33

Well plantar fasciitis for me after 3 runs with vivobarefoot. Back on max cushionning, no pain anymore and back on normal mileage after a month disruption. So I probably did too much too early but is really barefoot for road runners? I mean doesn't it make more sense on softer surfaces? I may try again but just not yet...
Posted: 06/03/2012 at 21:47

@Stevie G.

Funny, because I've been a runner for 9 years, and the first 7, I always had plantar faciitis issues. I started barefoot 2 years ago, and I haven't had an issue since. Pediatrist's explanation? My arch muscles grew too weak being overly supported, thus became more prone to injury. After a few weeks of strengthening them barefoot and continuing to run that way, the muscles have grown strong enough to support themselves properly and stay strong. 

Posted: 06/03/2012 at 23:51

Where to run bare that's the thing! How to avoid doggy do's and needles...! I have opted for Nike free run rather than actually bare and have in the past run over grass in socks (it was lovely the grass was wet - very refreshing) reasoning that if I stood in anything nasty I could just discard the socks at the end (just missed a cow pat!).

Showing my age - Zola Budd seemed to do ok...!

Posted: 07/03/2012 at 09:15

It seems to be all the rage thsi barefoot business - and I like to keep up with the latest fashions etc....but I have no injury issues with running with cushioned shoes, so I don't think I'll bother.

I've seen quite a few people out and about with minimalist shoes on and they all seem to have different running styles - some of them look a bit silly, and not at all natural.

Posted: 07/03/2012 at 10:43

A great idea to generate extra sales for the manufacturers and suppliers. If you have no problems running in the type of shoes you've learned to be comfortable in then surely there's more risk in making big changes.
Posted: 07/03/2012 at 19:26

If bare foot running was so great, surely all the elites would be doing it.

Yes Zola Budd did...but a one off from almost 30 years ago isn't a compelling argument!

It's a bizarre impractical fad!

Bobby, I dare say you either ran in the wrong trainers or over trained before.

There's probably sense in running in lighter weight trainers so that you don't heel strike as much, but to go barefoot or minimalistic just sounds like a world of pain.

Posted: 07/03/2012 at 22:23

My view is that it probably is ok for some and not for others. If you are happy in the footwear you are running in the risk of injury (or a whole new world of potential injuries) should probably put you off. However, if you have been plagued by injuries it is probably worth a go. it is kind of romantic and i admit I am tempted. 

The problem will be that for those it does work will get evangelical about it and convince others, who perhaps should not be tempted, to give in and try it.

 This is a great artilce on bare foot running from a scientific viewpoint. http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4185

Posted: 08/03/2012 at 09:49

Back before "trainers" were invented and everyone just wore plimsolls then that must have been the equivalent of barefoot running. 

I feel that this might all be a big spin by the shoe manufacturers to just sell more shoes.   

Posted: 08/03/2012 at 11:00

I must say that I'm amazed by the number of one-post wonders on the barefoot threads at the moment.

a) It's an incredible subject that inspires comment from lurkers otherwise too shy to express their opinions
b) it's too embarassing to post your opinions under your regular forum name in case you get shot down from either side

I'm sure there are other options.

Barefoot running is a wonderful world of he said / she said, and like any other topic is generally investigated by those who are interested in it, accompanied by their subjective bias.  Enjoy whatever works for you, whether it's cushions or corns, because no way is better than the way that permits you to enjoy yourself injury free.

Posted: 08/03/2012 at 11:06

For me, it's another tool that you have in your toolbox; not a panacea that's going to make you faster at a competitive level.

The best way to try it out is to run barefoot on the beach or grass, not minimalist shoes; so there's zero money to outlay to try it. 

In my experience, running barefoot (not minimalist, necessarily) shows up problems in form. It also makes me more likely to concentrate on fixing them rather than just on speed / distance. Taking speed and distance out of the equation somewhat also makes running more laid back and enjoyable. 

When I want to run competitively on roads or trails, I put on normal running shoes (with a personal preference for ones with less cushioning). I can't rely on my form when I'm tired and really pushing it, so I feel the risk of injury would not be worth it. Anyway, the only real competitive advantage would be that minimalist shoes are light. Of course, I take what I've learnt (physically and mentally) from the minimalist shoes / barefoot and continue to apply it as far as I can in the normal shoes. 

That being said, at this stage I can happily go 10 miles on tarmac in VFFs or Vivo minimalist shoes. When I choose to wear these, I feel I'm strengthening my feet and calves. I suspect running in them has improved my uphill form significantly too. 

Posted: 08/03/2012 at 22:32

Lol @callet "Barefoot running shoes". I run in Vibram Five Fingers and the odd barefoot run thrown in an personally it really works for me. I used to have terrible knees so never even thought about running but after hearing about the possible benefits of barefoot running i thought i'd have a go. a year later and i'm now in training for my 1st marathon in october (which i'll be running in my Vibrams)

Think the article is one of the best pieces of reporting on Barefooting i've seen, good work runners world
Posted: 09/03/2012 at 15:50

Lol @callet "Barefoot running shoes"!

I run in Vibram Five Fingers and the odd barefoot run thrown in an personally it really works for me. I used to have terrible knees so never even thought about running but after hearing about the possible benefits of barefoot running i thought i'd have a go. a year later and i'm now in training for my 1st marathon in october (which i'll be running in my Vibrams)

Think the article is one of the best pieces of reporting on Barefooting i've seen, good work runners world
Posted: 09/03/2012 at 15:50

I have been doing about a mile 3-4 times a week in vivo barefoots I find them much comfier that vff's I'm just hoping to strengthen my feet and calfs, normally I run with orthotics but I would love to get strong enough to one day ditch them! I'm in no rush to build my barefoot distance though, slowly does it! I am thinking of getting some smarter vivo barefoots to wear to work too
Posted: 10/03/2012 at 16:53

Am I being a bit thick? Where are you meant to do it? 3 mile long sandy beaches in the UK are not exactly around every corner and there are not many parks in the average town where you could get more than a two mile loop. Even then, there are surely lots of dangerous things to tread on!

I don't really know too much about the technical side other than what I've read above, but surely unless you like doing lots of laps of the same route for every training run, it must be pretty impractical?

There are quite a few people in my club who have read about the theory and are keen to try it, but I can't think of anywhere in the vicinity to go.

Posted: 12/03/2012 at 15:23

Inchers, before I took the plunge I was in the same position as you and your friends for a while. I've never run on a track and hated the idea of running laps. I've also got that typical morbid fear of stepping on something nasty.

I'm lucky to have a three-quarter mile stretch of sandy beach (and the sand isn't too soft, either) near me, although there are still plenty of pebbles I could break a toe on and obviously it means running the same stretch a number of times. 

If you really want to give it a go, it needs to be that kind of thing or running laps of a sports field. Your chances of stepping on something are, in reality, minimal. It helps you keep your head in the correct position, though: upright and scanning the ground 5-10 metres in front of you. Easier to make a start once the days begin getting longer. Once your feet get stronger, that's when the appeal of minimalist shoes comes in: no more boring laps and freedom to go anywhere.  

Posted: 13/03/2012 at 10:14

Inchers i think thats a pretty standard fear when looking into BFR, but you'd be surprised how clear the pavements are around the uk. Next time your out for a run keep your eyes down and see how much actual glass/syringes/dog mess you encounter, i think you'll be surprised by how little there actually is. Obviously this does depend where your running but from my experience pavements generally aren't as bad as you think and roads are nearly always clear of rubbish. You do tend to watch the ground a bit more though and its not that hard to change your gait to miss anything unpleasant that you come across.

I've also heard that you are worse off running on grass as you don't get the feedback from it and also anything painful can be hidden by the grass.
Posted: 13/03/2012 at 13:54

Suburban pavements are fine in my neck of the woods. On the rare occasions that I see broken glass ahead I cross the road, I have never seen a syringe and dog mess can be avoided. Winter can be a bit cold and autumn is annoying due to lots of knobbly berries and sharp twigs.

To give myself confidence the first time, I went out wearing my shoes ,checking for nasties and then removed my shoes at the half way point to retrace my steps home.

I can currently do 5k barefoot on rough Tarmac and concrete, but wear minimalist shoes for the majority of my runs.
Posted: 13/03/2012 at 16:05

I switched from increasingly more expensive motion control shoes that I've been running in for at least 9 years to pure barefoot last summer. My shin splints that have bothered me for at least 5 of those years...gone. My arch pain...gone. I started from pure scratch, running about 1/4 mile a few times a week barefoot in between my normal shod 7-11 milers. As others have noted, there really isn't much in the street that you would think would be dangerous. If you're worried about stepping on something, it's very simple: look where you are going to put your feet. 

Barefoot on a hard surface (concrete) teaches you very quickly how you should be striking, and I began incorporating better technique learned barefoot into my shod runs. Eventually got really sick of trying to run with a midfoot strike in "running" shoes with a thick heel, so I got a pair of FiveFingers; Haven't looked back, my $150 Brooks are now collecting dust in a closet. I ran a half shod two years ago in 1:51. Ran one last year in my Vibrams in 1:45, with half the training and a horrible pre-race day routine (read: imbibing to excess). 

For the vocal doubters out there, it's rather simple. You can denounce barefooting all you want, but until you actually try it correctly, please stop, you aren't being taken seriously. It's fun, it's healthy, it will strengthen your muscles (trust me, I had no idea how weak my calves really were) and there is absolutely no reason not to try it; but slowly, patiently, and with a full understanding that you are learning to do something brand new that you likely haven't done since you were a child.

When I run barefoot, I smile a lot. Usually the whole run. Can you say the same? 

Posted: 21/03/2012 at 01:22

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