Is Running Barefoot Actually Better For You?

It may be counterintuitive (and hard to digest for parents like myself who always have to tell our kids to wear shoes when playing outside) but going barefoot may actually be better for you.

Here's a New York Times article by Amy Cortese about the controversial movement of running barefoot (or barely barefoot anyhow, as these runners still wear thin rubber running shoes like the ones shown to the left):

Recent research suggests that for all their high-tech features, modern running shoes may not actually do much to improve a runner’s performance or prevent injuries. Some runners are convinced that they are better off with shoes that are little more than thin gloves for the feet — or with no shoes at all.

Plenty of medical experts disagree with this notion. The result has been a raging debate in running circles, pitting a quirky band of barefoot runners and researchers against the running-shoe and sports-medicine establishments.

Naturally, Nike and other large shoe manufacturers aren't amused:

The shoe industry giants defend their products, saying they help athletes perform better and protect feet from stress and strain — not to mention the modern world’s concrete and broken glass.

But for all the technological advances promoted by the industry — the roll bars, the computer chips and the memory foam — experts say the injury rate among runners is virtually unchanged since the 1970s, when the modern running shoe was introduced. Some ailments, like those involving the knee and Achilles’ tendon, have increased.

Link (Photo: Jodi Hilton for The New York Times)


Back in South Africa, it was not uncommon to see kids running barefoot at track meets. Also, my school had a rule that if you didn't have shoes that were up to school code the you had to come to school bare foot. At kids did. I was one of them.
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Check out the new book Born to Run about a tribe in Mexico that's people run in rudimentary sandals or barefoot, and set world records left and right.
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I can't deny or support that modern running shoes cause more injuries than no shoes at all but I will say that a statement like, "Some ailments, like those involving the knee and Achilles’ tendon, have increased," is more or less useless unless you adjust it for miles run per capita or something like it. Fact of the matter is, way more people are running way more miles than they were in the 70's. It stands to reason that you would have more of these types of injuries and who's to say that the problems wouldn't be more numerous and more severe if it weren't for the protection of modern shoes?

I will say that I've attempted to run in Nike Free shoes which are supposed to come much closer to approximating running barefoot and my knees started hurting almost immediately. I'll stick with my Asics 2040s for now. My feet and knees have been relatively healthy over my 15 year running "career" and I'm not going to change things now.

Hey, whatever works for you and causes you the least amount of pain is probably the right thing for you.
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I agree with Cory, whatever works for you is what you should go with, not what the 'experts' say you should.

I have no desire to run barefoot around my neighborhood with all kinds of dangers to my feet.
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Yeah barefoot running has had a small but growing number among the running community. Alot of runners I've known turn to it after having continual injuries and problems when running, and going barefoot has solved them.

Takes some time to get used to though. Even an experienced runner can't just jump in. You have to start slowly and gradually build up, strengthening your joints and tendons and building the soles of your feet up.
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Also: don't know why Nike is upset, they've capitalised on it by making the Nike Free range, which are meant to mimic running barefoot.
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I bought a pair of Nike Free shoes for casual wear and they are the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn! They don't have much support and are very flexible. Plus they have mesh uppers which keep my feet cool.

I haven't tried them for running. I understand it takes several weeks to get used to them. But for walking and lounging around the home/office, they're the best!
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Zola Budd comes to mind when it comes to proving shoe manufacturers wrong.

Growing up in the Philippines - we played and ran outside without shoes. I still do it to this day.

Those Nike Free shoes look very similar to jika-tabi.
Nothing is new anymore.
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Nike Free shoes are another over-priced gimmick, and ridiculous looking to boot. I walk barefoot and run in a $10 pair of Kiks, a supermarket knock-off of Keds. Best thing Ive ever done. My feet and legs are stronger, and I'm not wasting money on garbage.

How come when Nike and others moved their factories to Third World countries the prices of their products never decreased? It is all about more bloated profits for a product no one really needs.
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I've been wearing Vibrams for months and I love them. It did hurt a bit getting used to them, but that's what happens when you have atrophied the muscles for stabilizing your feet. Of course your Achilles hurts, you've shortened it wearing Nike high heels. Now that the Vibrams have built up my foot and calf muscles though, I hate to wear my old shoes. I've got my full review of the shoes up here.
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Well, I can't find the references again, but...

People suffering from knee joints problems are advised to wear shoes with compensated sole, to lower the pressure when the foot hit the ground. However, some medics have shown that walking barefoot or with a very thin sole is in fact better in this case of problem.

The reason is that thick and complicated shoes sole insulate the sole of the foot. This part of the body is in fact heavily full of nerves, like the hand. This nerves give information on our position to help us keeping our balance. When you walk barefoot, you have a better sense of the pressure, so you instinctively hit the soil in a lighter way...and so help your joints.

It's not a bad news for shoemakers. They just have to adapt to develop shoes that help you "feel" the ground, while providing good protection against dirt and dangers such as rocks or pins. And fashionable, of course.
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I've been wearing vibram 5 fingers almost daily since I got them a year ago, and will continue to wear them until they fall apart. Then I will immediately go out and buy a new pair.

Only problem? I can't go anywhere without someone commenting on my shoes :)
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I'm a proud barefooter. In college I don't think I wore shoes more than 24 hours total in 4 years. I've even spent weekends in New York City with no shoes. People think it's dangerous but when you get used to it, your feet develop a heightened feeling and you learn to use them sort of like your hands. You develop a sixth sense about where you walk and sort of glide-step rather than stomp about. I've never had any puncture wounds and have even stepped on broken glass before but only suffered minor scrapes, nothing more than what one gets on your hands in day to day activity.
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Proud wearer of Vibram KSO's! I first started with just trail running (I really can't wearing imagine traditional shoes for trails anymore). I now use my KSO's for most of my neighborhood runs too and a lot of my workouts at the gym. I was surprised how much more stable I felt doing lunges, squats, etc. while wearing the vibrams. I was much more rigid and firmly planted in my heels. Stronger joints from the "barefoot" running probably has something to do with that too.

Also, I'm a big guy (6'5" 250) and the change in running style that barefoot running brings did wonders for alleviating arch problems, joint pain, and shin splints. Calves were sore for awhile but using muscle (instead of heel) to absorb the shock of each stride has been a blessing for my big frame.
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I'm a hobby runner (running 10, 12 km at a time, hopefully I'll complete marathon next year). I used to have nasty pain in left knee and had to make a break from running. Changing running technique, shoes and so forth didn't help.

Eventually I came back to the idea of getting some 'barefoot' shoes. You do want some shoes for running barefoot - social reasons, so you don't get kicked out of a building, better hygiene, protection against broken glass etc. Even Masaai people make "shoes" from old tyres - thin and flexible, but sturdy enough to protect from cuts. I remembered Vivo Barefoot from an article, and decided to try them.

It took a couple of weeks to get used to them, but my knee pain gradually faded away. I can barely feel it now, and only at times. Running barefoot is good because it *teaches* you to run properly - or you'll feel pain. Developing proper muscles and humility helps too. I strike the ground much lighter now. Best thing is, however, these shoes are much more comfortable and I don't feel a strong urge to take them off after coming home !

Yes I know plural from anecdote is not proof, but the reasoning they use sounds convincing to me. Evolution is a slow thing and feet are really well suited for walking barefoot. Running in shoes is a bit like running with painkillers. Modern (not just western) habits are often wrong, you should be open-minded if you read Neatorama and seldom accept dogmas. Thinking outside the box is good. Did you know Romans used lead for pretty much everything, including wine spices ? How about radium chocolate http://www.neatorama.com/2008/06/25/radioactive-chocolate-yum/ ? Or potatoes - in medieval ages nobles never ate them, thought they make people stupid. Commoners did and were healthier. What about the idea that water spreads germs so you shouldn't bathe ?

Time and again our civilisation was wrong and overconfident about something.

For more information about going barefoot, wikipedia is a good start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barefoot_running
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I believe as far as injuries go, if your a midfoot-forefoot runner, you probably have few injuries with running shoes. Running barefoot you tend to change how you run, which is a mid to forefoot style. This style lets your forefoot absorb most of the shock, whereas heel stikers fell the full force staight up their leg and back.
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I can only speak for myself, but 2 years of barefoot running have gone much better than the running in shoes I did in the past. But I would never push running in feet on someone who prefers shoes.
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I'm a firm believer in running barefoot.

I'm 6'2" 220lbs. I started training for a marathon last year and as I started doing longer (10+ mile) runs I was getting hurt repeatedly. I had many of the typical ailments: knee pain, shin splints, plantar fasciitis (pain in the tendon along the bottom of your foot). I got newer, more expensive running shoes, and wore various straps and supports to no avail. I kept getting hurt and would have to stop running for days or even weeks at a time. It was so frustrating because I knew I was capable of running these distances, but my feet and legs were getting too beat up.

I then heard about running barefoot and it all made sense to me. I tried it a few times and it felt great. I was able to mimic my natural barefoot stride while wearing shoes and continued training for my marathon. I didn't have time to get my body ready to run a barefoot marathon, but I did my shorter runs barefoot and my long runs wearing shoes.

I ran my first marathon two months ago, and I wouldn't have been able to do it if I wasn't training barefoot.

I'm now doing almost all of my running barefoot and hope to run a barefoot marathon next year. I've noticed that a run about one minute per mile faster barefoot than I do while wearing shoes. I've had none of the knee and foot injuries that I had while wearing shoes. I did get a few blisters at first, but my feet are getting calloused and my lower legs and feet are getting much stronger.

I suggest that anyone remotely interested in this reads Born to Run as the author explains this all so well.

I live in snowy Utah, so I'll probably get some Vibram Five Fingers for the winter.
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i grew up in a place where i used to go everywhere in sandals and play sports i.e. soccer barefoot. i had my share of incidents like stepping on a broken glass, it didnt hurt but the cut was deep enough i could see thick red blood (like jelly) coming out of my foot.. anyways, now i've started running and could not imagine how i would run barefoot as when you run, you cover a wide range of areas, there could have been broken glasses laying around on the streets, etc.. you'd never know.. and i enjoy having some sort of foam to absorb the shock on your feet when running.. so unless you're running on a specified running track like the ones in the olympics stadiums (although this doesn't mean that you wouldnt get injuries/into incidents), i would never run barefoot..
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