Should I run barefoot?

With more and more column (and screen) inches being devoted to the miracle of barefoot running I thought it timely to mention some observations about how different runners react to barefoot or minimalist running shoes as a stimulus for making improvements to running technique. I also offer some thoughts on transitioning to barefoot or barefoot shoes for those who are really keen to give it a try. For the record, I don’t believe you need to run barefoot or run in completely flat shoes to learn the core elements of proper running technique. For some runners barefoot can be helpful, but it’s not for everyone – find out why in this article.

Is barefoot running a silver bullet?

It’s unfortunate that there is no one size fits all shoe, orthotic or technology solution for runners looking to improve performance and avoid injury. Various singular approaches have been tried over the years and whether it has been pronation control features, cushioning/technology (gel, air, torsion bars etc), minimalist and barefoot running, there has never been a running silver bullet. Running is a complex activity that is performed slightly differently by individuals, especially by non-elite runners, so it’s not surprising that people react and respond to changes in running footwear in various ways.

Alignment, stability and power in running start and end at the hips

The core reason each of these approaches doesn’t always deliver is that focusing on the extremities, feet, shoes, socks, orthotics, ankle posture etc ignores the overall running technique and muscle activation pattern used by the runner. How well you execute proper running form is driven by how well you use and condition the muscles in the running engine room – the hips. So just as undying faith in your cushy running shoes and orthotics is a sure fire way to end up injured, a quick switch to barefoot running and/or extreme minimalist shoes could equally see you broken if you don’t consider all aspects of good running technique.

Illustration by Paul Blow

Why is barefoot risky for many runners?

I agree that barefoot running is an attractive proposition, there’s a lot to like about the idea of getting back to nature as a means to stimulate improvements in your running form. The problem is that years of not running barefoot (or walking), wearing shoes with heels and modern unyielding hard surfaces combine to make this a risky move for many runners.

If you’re not amongst the fortunate runners who are quick to adapt to the change, there’s a good chance that removing your shoes could lead to injury. This is especially true if you adopt an all or nothing approach and perform all your running barefoot or in extreme minimal shoes.

You don’t want to end up like writer David Abel who wrote a great piece in the Boston Globe about training for and racing a half marathon in Vibram Five Fingers. Not only did he suffer the misfortune of a stress fracture of the foot, but also the slightly embarrassing experience of having some shoe wearing Kenyan elite runners laughing at his predicament. I can’t improve on David’s own description of what happened or Paul Blow’s classic illustration!

Limping toward the first-aid station, I encountered three Kenyans who had been among the top finishers. They pointed at my feet, and I noticed that they were wearing ordinary running sneakers.

“Did you really run in those?” one asked.

“I did.”

“We used to run barefoot to school every day, until we got shoes in high school,” he said. “But we used to run on dirt and grass. We would never run like that on pavement.”

He paused and laughed. “You’re crazy.”

Aside from the obvious hazards of stepping on rocks, glass or developing metatarsal stress fractures, a key area that is likely to cause you grief is the muscles in the deep compartment of the lower calves. The sometimes troublesome, but often overlooked muscular threesome of Tibialis posterior, Flexor hallucis longus and Flexor digitorum longus all have tendons that wrap under and attach to the foot and toes. These muscles and tendons are plantaflexors – they help stiffen the foot so it becomes stable and springy.

There’s little doubt that long years of wearing stiff shoes with heels weakens these foot stiffening muscles. The reason is that heels put your foot into a soft plantaflexed position (toes pointing down) and many shoe models have stiffness built into them that does some of the work that would otherwise be done by the engagement of the aforementioned deep calf muscles. Part of the main benefit of wearing shoes like Nike Frees or going barefoot is to re-condition these muscles. But you need to take it slowly as aggravating these muscles can lead to sore shins and foot pain.

The Calf, Soleus and Achilles tendon can also act up and cause you problems. The combination of working harder and over a slightly longer range of motion can be the trigger of soreness or injury.

Why do some runners adapt to barefoot running more easily than others?

There’s not much scientific evidence about that discussed this point, but there is some great writing from thoughtful bloggers and exponents of barefoot running and minimalist running shoes. Practical experience in something disparate as running is probably a better guide as to what works and doesn’t work outside of the laboratory.

Adding or removing footwear can be a useful stimulus, but it’s rarely the complete picture. A recent article and some video posted on YouTube by Runblogger Pete Larson illustrates this point perfectly. Pete filmed a group of barefoot and Vibram wearing runners at the recent NYC Barefoot Run. Some of these runners have adapted to a neutral to forefoot oriented foot-strike, others have not. The information presented in Pete’s article about impact and loading forces shows that if you don’t adapt quickly you can expect to continue to hit the ground pretty hard without shoes. I was also out watching the Melbourne Marathon over the weekend and noticed a couple of runners wearing Vibrams. One runner looked and sounded good in them, but another was slapping the ground hard and making heavy weather of it.

From my own experience as a runner and observing runners making improvements in their technique, I believe the first reason people get into trouble comes back to my point about good running technique and form being regulated at the hips. Runners with a basically sound technique tend to adapt faster to changes in footwear – this is because they are already good at activating their buttocks and hamstrings just prior to and during ground contact. Many of these runners also already have a relatively neutral foot-strike which makes it easier for them to transition to wearing less shoe. A previous article I wrote about a runner making rapid adjustments in technique in response to wearing Nike Frees is a good example of what I’m getting at.

This process of turning on your bum positions the lower legs and feet closer to the body mass and aligns the thighs with the hips. I captured this barefoot competitor (pictured below) at the 2011 Stawell Gift exhibiting good thigh and hip alignment. If you can’t run with this strong and stable posture then going barefoot could be risky. Almost all of the runners Mark and I have seen in the coaching environment this year have to some degree had hip alignment issues and lack of strength and control of the buttock muscles.

Barefoot runner with relatively sound running techniqueOn the flip side we’ve noticed a number of times that runners with more natural talent do seem to adapt to whatever shoes you put on them. These runners are more likely to be candidates for the inclusion of more minimal footwear or some barefoot running in their program. It’s tough on runners (like me) that have to work a bit harder, but that’s just another unfair universe moment we have to deal with!

Runners that should be extra careful about barefoot

Your running technique tip is this: if you happen to share any of the attributes I had as a runner (see below), before I started improving my running form, you should be very cautious about adopting extreme minimalist shoes and/or barefoot running.

Runners who are quadriceps and hip flexor dominant and also happen to run heel-toe have a very short window of opportunity to make adaptations before the removal of all cushioning and support causes injury.

In short, the gap between running well and their current running technique and conditioning is too great to bridge in one major step (like going barefoot) without succumbing to injury.

For this type of runner a safer approach would be to make gradual steps down in running footwear support e.g. motion controlling to neutral, then neutral to lightweight trainer, followed by a progression into lighter, flatter marathon racing shoes and other minimalist running shoes. At the same time these runners should be working on hip strength, control and a better muscle activation patterns. This is exactly the path that I have followed.

Any barefoot activity should be confined to walking about the house , garden or office. For those wanting to further promote foot strength, doing some of your strength exercises barefoot (not when working with barbells for obvious reasons) might be a good idea. But keep an eye on how your body reacts, if you’re not used to it, even walking barefoot for short distances might be enough to trigger soreness.

Am I suited to barefoot running?

If you are a runner as I have described above I would say no, at least not initially.  Working on a long term plan to reduce support in your footwear and increase strength is a safer option. And when I say long term, gradual progress over months and years is what I am talking about. You cannot rush this or anything in running. If you’re too impatient to follow this type of approach and you’re currently not injured and enjoying your running then stick with your current footwear.

Another crude test is to check out what your feet look like – if your toes are permanently pointed upwards from long years of shoe wearing and you don’t have the strength the curl them under your foot and say pick up a pencil off the floor, then you may want to think twice before losing your shoes.

Do my thighs stay aligned with my hips? If they don’t you’re asking for trouble going barefoot or wearing extreme minimalist shoes. The reason: runners that tend to run along a central line tend to create much more twisting through the hips, knees and lower legs. This posture has been linked to injuries such as shin splints (MTSS), stress fractures, ITB syndrome and many others. You need to get stronger in the hips before you completely remove all support from your footwear.

So how would I transition safely to barefoot? I’m still really keen to try it.

This will be the subject of a future article. But before I write that I’m going devise a safe strategy to re-introduce some barefoot running into my own program. I did experiment with barefoot along with an aggressive forefoot oriented foot-strike as my last major mistake before I wrote my book. It landed me with a few weeks on the sidelines and some months of easy jogging before I got over the nasty case of shin splints (MTSS). The reason: combining too many changes too quickly before I was strong and skillful enough to handle them.

Since then I’ve strengthened my hips and have been wearing Nike Frees for a lot of my running so my feet and lower calves should be stronger and I run in better alignment with my hips. In theory I should be ready to start taking on some barefoot running. Do I want to become a barefoot runner? No chance, nor am I going to append the word “Barefoot” to my name. I’m only going to use it as a carefully thought out and structured  strength and coordination training intervention. Stay tuned to see how I get on and please leave a comment with your experiences of going barefoot.

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19 Responses to Should I run barefoot?

  1. Damian March 20, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    Great article. I have also just finished reading your book after becoming interested in barefoot or at least minimalist running. Last year I completed my first marathon (age 34) and the year prior, my first half. I had Achilles tendinitis 3 weeks before the half and then last year I started having a lot of knee problems before the full. A podiatrist put me onto Barefoot Science inner soles which I started wearing about 3 weeks out from the full marathon and have been wearing ever since. My training usually consisted of agility drills and sprints twice a week which I always performed completely barefoot on the soft grass, a fast road run app. 4km, a mod. paced run app. 1 hour and a long run on Sundays which were all performed in moderate stability shoes with the Barefoot Science inner sole. This year I introduced slow to mod. paced barefoot runs on the beach (hard and soft sand) as well as slow to mod. paced runs in shoes with BF inner soles. My feet were feeling really strong and my knees, shins, everything were also feeling great so a few weeks ago I decided to use regular inner soles in my NB 870 and go for a short mod. paced run (in my mind my first step towards a minimalist approach). About 30 minutes into the run I started experiencing pain in the lower muscles at the front of my shin as well as pain in my calf similar to that referred from the Achilles. I limped back to the car and treated as a normal injury using the RICE principle. I saw a physio who thought it was the perineal tendon and I also attended some deep tissue massage. Nearly 3 weeks after the injury I decided to get an X-ray and it revealed a fracture in the distal fibula. I have been in a cast ever since. Could it be possible that my feet had become so accustomed to the BF inner soles that when they were removed from the equation I could occur an injury so quickly? Any advice? Also what are some great exercises to do (upper body) as I cannot stand or squat etc.?

    • Brian March 20, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

      G’day Damian, I think that’s as a cautionary tale. Any change you make in equipment, shoes, orthotics and innersoles is always a risky time. It’s a bit late for you, but I’d generally suggest very short 5 – 20 mins max jogs when trying out something radically different to what you are used to and baking off if there is any unusual discomfort. I couldn’t really speculate on the exact cause of the injury, it may have been building up in the background for months – always hard to say without seeing how someone runs. I’m not familiar with the product you mention but a BF innersole sounds like an oxymoron. The barefoot training you describe also sounds quite intense and a bit risky, why sprint barefoot when jogging and running in regular shoes? I reckon start barefoot with very easy and small amounts of jogging – I commenced with 400m only on grass oval. Upper body work on a hand bike or grinder is good if you can do it seated, as are lat pull downs and maybe pushups done from the knee. Avoid anything that puts pressure on the injury. Hope all gets better soon. Brian

  2. Andy DuBois February 28, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    Great article but I would disagree that running is a top down activity not a bottom up activity. Running is both- there are two transition zones where the muscles go from being eccentrically loaded to concentric , one during landing and push off and the other mid air when the front leg stops travelling forward and the back leg has just come off the ground.

    Landing is very much a bottom up driver for the rest of the body whereas in mid stride it is top down. However both are effected by each other , the feet will affect the muscle activation in the hips and vice versa.

    For example if the big toe lacks movement then the foot may spin out to avoid having to bend , this will reduce the amount of time the glute muscle spends in mid range , therefore decreasing its efficiency . Doing all the glute work in the world won’t fix the problem. Unless the big toe can be convinced to bend more then the problem won’t go away.

    Conversely if the hip lacks internal rotation then this may cause the femur, then tibia to rotate out wards causing the foot to spin out which will reduce the amount of bend required from the big toe.

    Which came first? Big toe problem or hip problem? Does it matter? The key is to address both. Ignoring the feet or the hips won’t solve the problem.

    My views on barefoot or minimalist running are very similar to yours but I think focus needs to be on feet and hips ( and thoracic spine ) . One is not more important than the other.

    • Brian February 28, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

      G’day Andy, thanks for the comment. No doubt the feet and ground contact are important, but my personal view is that getting the hips strong, stable and well aligned is usually more important for most runners to get right initially. Having said that our coaching approach has a bit of both because we encourage strengthening of the feet through more flexible footwear I agree this helps better muscle activation further up the chain. I’ve no problem with you having a different emphasis, it’d be boring if everyone thought exactly the same way. Regards Brian

  3. Paul Joyce January 4, 2012 at 11:47 pm #

    Brian, another great article. While I only run barefoot very occassionally I have successfully made the transition to more minimalist shoes. I now do almost all of my running in zero drop shoes (I like my Nike Frees too much to completely give them away!). One of the things that really helped me in this transition, and would probably help those runners wanting to go barefoot, is wearing flat shoes when I am not running i.e. at work and casually. Pete Larson at Runblogger has suggested that what you wear during the day is more important that what you wear when running and I tend to agree. I am at work for around 50 hours a week but only run for about 5 hours per week. I would be interested in your take on this. Cheers, Paul

    • Brian January 5, 2012 at 9:57 am #

      Hi Paul, totally agree with Pete that wearing flat flexible shoes during the day is a great transition step that will help runners strengthen up their feet. I also believe this helps people learn to activate their glutes and hamstrings a bit more when just walking around. Regards Brian

  4. Rob W December 27, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    Hi all, really good stuff here. Like Seda I have found I have had more injuries since having a gait analysis and being advised to use Brooks Adrenaline GTS 11’s. I find my technique has become ‘lazy’ and I now want to move to something where I ‘feel’ the run. James Dunne, I agree form has a really important part and I am really trying to work on striking on my forefoot and under my hips, but I don’t think the shoes help!

    I don’t think I want to go to the full barefoot running world, but I want to move to more minimal running. Would a good transition, and obviously a gradual one, be a shoe like Brooks Green Silence (Neutral) or Mizuno Wave Musha 3 (slight support) or something else? And then where could I go from there in terms of flexible footware?

    Rob – UK – running for pleasure!

    • Brian December 27, 2011 at 9:21 am #

      G’day Rob, thanks for the comment and feedback. If you’ve read some of the other articles I’ve written or my book you’ll know that I reckon working on buttock and hamstring strength and activation is a good place to start and can be an easier beginning than trying to modify your foot-strike too much early on. If you can get these muscles going you’ll find your foot naturally strikes a bit closer to your body. In terms of shoes I’ve not run in the Musha or the Green Silence, however based on what I’ve seen on the web both these shoes could be a big jump for you as you’ve been in the Adrenaline. A gradual step down could be the Adizero Tempo, then Nike Zoom Speed Lite ST for example. These shoes do still have a little support, which once you get stronger you may be able to remove and then head towards neutral lightweight trainers such as the Adizero Boston or Marathon racers such as the Adios At the same time some walking and gym work in a Nike Free Run will start building up some more foot and lower calf strength. As usual I recommend gradually easy into new shoes with shorter jogs than your normal running distances, any soreness back-off. Best of luck. Brian

  5. seda October 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

    Hi
    thanks for all these very useful tips. I’m new to your website but really liked it! I’ve been on a transition to “less shoe” for a about a year now. First I started with removing my orthotics which I had started to use after passing a gait analysis test with the advise of the physiotherapist. In fact I had more injuries than ever before when I started to use orthotics and I realised that the reason was they were too rigid for me to run on them. So I decided to get some more flexible shoes and it was only possible by wearing more minimalist shoes. I started with Saucony Kinvara, then came the Adidas Adizero Rocket and then VFF Bikila. Before running with VFF I started to do some real barefoot runnings like 10-15mins 2-3 times a week. During this transition stage I cut back the mileage and cycled a lot (almost my main sport was cycling for a summer) to keep fit. then gradually I get back into increasing mileage. I’m aware that I have problems with my hip (especially since I broke my right hip in an accident in 2002) so I try many different glute exercises and stick with the ones which work best for me. I also use a wobble board to strengthen the lower leg which I find as a great tool for both balance and flexibility of the ankle and feet. I experienced some mild (sometimes abit more than “mild”) top of the foot pain and sometimes a tight ITB (because of the imbalances of my hips) but other than these no serious injury. Whenever I had pain on my feet I used massage with a firm ball (almost same size as a tennis ball but firmer than that) or TP massage tools (I love them). it helped me a lot.
    I totally agree that the transition to less shoe is something to be so careful about. Actually, I run barefoot or with socks 3 times a week about 20-30mins just to get the feedback to correct my posture. I don’t like my VFF that much cause I can’t get enough feedback and yet I have no protection. So I think about getting a pair pf Merrell Pace Glove or Altra Intuition (any suggestion?)
    Thanks for sharing your experiences and ideas here.

    • Brian October 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm #

      G’day Seda, thanks for the feedback. Sounds like you’re on the right track, orthotics can sometimes do more harm than good. Keep an eye on that foot pain as discomfort in that area can be a sign of a stress reaction or fracture developing. In terms of other minimal shoes to try maybe have a look at the Nike Free 3.0, Saucony Hattori or NB Minimus Trail. To give your feet and lower calves a break try try out the Adidas Adios, it’s not zero drop, but a very flexible and responsive shoe. Brian

  6. Missy October 12, 2011 at 5:03 am #

    I have been transitioning to more minimalist shoes for about 1 year and a half now. I agree with your statement that some people are fortunate enough to be able to run in anything. I am not one of those, but have often found immediate improvement upon transitioning to “less shoe”.

    Currently I do my weight-lifting workouts in VFFs and run in Merrell Gloves. I have been running in those about a month, prior to that I had Saucony A/4s. In my case I find that less shoe leads to almost immediate posture improvements in lifting and running. Not that it’s perfect, but improved, and I believe my posture in general has improved since tending toward less shoe.

    All that said, I have encountered injuries along the way, typically in the lower leg and ankle. After having gone years in orthotics and heavy-duty shoes (and experiencing stress fractures in them), all those intricate calf muscles have needed re-conditioning. One thing I have found exceptionally helpful is self-massage, particularly in the realm of trigger point therapy. There have been numerous times that I have found chronic nagging pain or stiffness alleviated by finding the nasty little trigger point that’s the cause of it and working on it for a few days.

    In addition to being conservative in your transition to minimalist, I would recommend being nice to your lower legs and feet by regular massaging and stretching. It takes time out of your routine, but I have found a lot of benefit to it.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article (and blog).

    Missy

    • Brian October 12, 2011 at 7:15 am #

      Hi Missy. Thanks for the comments and positive feedback. You raise a really good point about the self massage, I also keep a close eye on how my lower calves are doing using a combination of trigger points, a flexible massage stick and just giving any niggles a good rub. Aside from a few nasty injuries like ITB syndrome it’s generally problems in the lower legs and feet that stop you running so being kind to those areas is a great idea. Rolling your feet over a firm ball or using a trigger point massage tool is also good for keeping all those deep muscles in good order. I’ll cover some of these techniques in a bit more detail in a future post. Regards Brian

  7. Dave Robbo October 11, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    Great article Brian.

    Two things stand out for me:

    – It is clear there is a great deal to consider when a runner is looking to transition to less of a shoe or no shoes.
    In all discussions of the topic this point should be stressed, to prevent a mindless and reckless approach that will likely lead to problems.

    – The importance of the ‘running engine room’ – the hips (incl gluts & deep core). I am convinced, when addressing running injuries, that this is where we should be focusing on.
    If the engine room is not doing its job, the smaller moving parts down the chain are going to struggle to perform optimally.

    Its worth checking out a post by Jay Dicharry on his UVA Endurance Sport blog:
    http://uvaendurosport.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/less-from-your-shoes-more-from-your-feet/
    He tells a great story about the cookie experiment and offers his own transitioning check-list.

    • Brian October 11, 2011 at 5:50 pm #

      Hi Robbo, thanks for the feedback and comments. Completely agree about the engine room, running is a top (hips) down activity rather than a bottom (foot) up activity. Checked out Jay’s article, some good points (especially about the cookies!) not sure I’m on board with the foot and ankle flexibility points though, will come back to that in a future article as it’s worth a longer discussion that I’d be keen to hear from you on. Brian

  8. James Dunne October 10, 2011 at 11:51 pm #

    Brian, thanks for putting together such a good article!

    There is so much media “noise” at present surrounding the whole barefoot/minimalist running movement that the important message seems to be getting somewhat lost…

    The most important message should read that that foot position, contact type and stride length are all just expressions (end results) of what is happening with the rest of the whole-body running technique. Posture, Hamstring/Glute activation, even Arm Motion will affect the way in which the foot loads… a new pair of shoes, (or no shoes at all) will do nothing to stop a runner being excessively Hip Flexor dominant, for example.

    As a coach, I encourage people to think “Form before Footwear”. If you improve whole-body running technique out so that you reduce braking forces/impact, improve muscle balance (reduce quad/hip flexor dominance) and improve posture etc… I find that runners can the successfully wear as much or as little of a shoe as they are comfortable with.

    For me, barefoot running is something I occasionally use as a coaching tool during a session. I wouldn’t ever say that a runner should throw away their shoes in an effort to improve technique!

    Of course, I completely agree that any change in technique should be implemented gradually with a program slowly building volume to allow for adaptation. It’s also important to combine the running based technique work with functional strengthening work.

    Keep up the good work buddy.

    • Brian October 11, 2011 at 9:29 am #

      G’day James, thanks for the comments. I agree that the core message is getting lost because we all like a quick fix, but it it runs counter to everything I’ve learned about running which is improvement and changes take time and cannot ever be rushed. Cheers Brian

  9. Keith Bateman October 10, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    Another great article: From my point of view it is all about changing technique for the better – gradually in a controlled way – not so much barefoot. Moving towards barefoot and some barefoot drills are good ways of supporting that technique change – I believe barefoot/minimalist encourages good technique whereas heavy supportive shoes with raised heels encourage poor technique. But it takes time for the body to adjust and strengthen – many people get injured when they start running because they don’t give enough time for adapting and the same is true for a change such as this

    • Brian October 10, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

      G’day Keith. Thanks again for the feedback and thoughtful contributions. I’ll be hitting you up shortly for some ideas on barefoot drills. Regards Brian

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