Fitness Articles

The Pros and Cons of Barefoot Running

The Science (and Common Sense) of Running without Footwear

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Although barefoot running has been practiced in some parts of the world for hundreds of years, the concept has only recently gained popularity as an alternative to traditional running shoes in the Western world.  The book "Born to Run," published in 2009, explored the patterns of distance runners who are able to avoid common injuries by running without shoes. This sparked a whole new interest in barefoot running and minimalist running shoes, which are lightweight and flexible and have very little padding or support. Proponents of barefoot exercise claim that the excessive support and cushioning of traditional running shoes leads to muscle weakness and injury, while opponents contend that running in minimalist footwear (or no shoes at all) doesn't provide enough protection or support. 
 
Is barefoot running just a fad, or is the trend toward minimalism worth trying? It’s important to do the research before deciding whether or not barefoot running is right for you. The two sides of this debate each have research to support their claims. First, let’s look at some of the research supporting minimalist running.

A 2010 study in the journal Nature found that the majority of runners wearing shoes strike their heels, which causes a large and sudden collision force that happens (on average) 960 times for every mile ran.  The authors concluded that this makes runners prone to repetitive stress injuries. People who run barefoot tend to land with a step toward the middle or front of the foot, causing less impact force to the foot. (Learn more about the difference between heel and forefoot striking in this article on proper running form.)
 
A 2012 study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that minimalist runners are "more economical" than traditionally runners regardless of foot strike—even after controlling for shoe mass and stride frequency. The researchers believe that minimalist shoes provide a more "elastic" energy storage and release than other running shoes.
 
Other recent studies question the validity of the benefits of barefoot running. The journal Sports Health published a review in 2012 that concluded that there is not yet enough research to determine whether or not foot strike has a positive or negative effect on injury. A year later, the Journal of Applied Physiology concluded that the forefoot strike pattern is not more economical than the rearfoot strike pattern. 

Potential Benefits of Barefoot Running
While running barefoot or in minimalist shoes might not solve all of your aches and pains, it may help strengthen the muscles, ligaments and tendons of the foot. It can also help lengthen the Achilles and calf muscles, which can shorten over time if you wear shoes that provide a "lift" to the heel.
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About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is a certified personal trainer, certified health coach and advanced health & fitness specialist. See all of Jen's articles.

Member Comments

  • I would only try barefoot running on a beach. I do exercise without shoes frequently inside my home. I prefer sandles to shoes or sneakers any day except for when the snow is flying. - 7/2/2014 12:50:24 PM
  • I would love to try it. I would have to find a place to go though because people in my neighborhood get drunk and smash their beer bottles in the road. A park, maybe? School track could work too. Good ideas though, and good article. - 4/14/2014 12:39:26 AM
  • I tried barefoot running, and it just hurt. - 2/9/2014 6:00:44 PM
  • TATOUDAKI
    After an almost 2month vacation in Ikaria, Greece where i was camping this summer i realized without ever reading before how barefoot walking can work wonders. The trick to that however was, that i was walking mostly on sand, woods, wood, rocks, and every once in a while in concrete. In all the time i was there i wore no shoes, no flip flops, no sandals, nothing.
    Coming back in Athens on September i was so in love with my new habit that i couldn't resist keep on going barefoot. Only this time i would walk barefoot out my house, to my car (driving barefoot is definitely the best driving, consider how many endings on your foot, how sensitive it is , how elegant and precise comparing to a high heel or a wedge, or just a skate shoe, or hard leather sole man's shoe. I would park my car in the center of athens somewhere and walk everywhere barefoot. It lasted for two more months until it started raining and wearing a sweater with no shoes, now seemed like i was one of the thousand homeless people of athens. The funny thing is , i make shoes.. thats my job! Anyway, what i meant to say with all these, was that while i was in vacation walking in real terrains barefoot was the most natural thing to do for my feet, my joints, my mind and soul. I was grounded, i could receive all the energy my environment was providing me with. I loved it so much that couldn't stopped and thats the only reason i looked like crazy walking barefoot in the streets when in the city. However, the city is mostly concrete. No energy can be received from concrete really, walking in stone or marble which we have loads in athens was a small simulation of the nature my feet was used to.

    Did you know that through the pores of your feet you suck in pretty much everything? Well, i didn't and imagine my surprise when my face starting breaking bad as if i was trying to expel the dirtiest toxins from my system. And thats what was happening really, i had sucked all of athens dirt through my feet and it was running through my body.. fortunately as i said the first rains came and thi... - 12/15/2013 3:08:59 PM
  • not for me I cannot even stand walking barefoot.
    - 12/11/2013 9:09:27 PM
  • I would be willing to try a minimalist shoe, but I run on trails. No way, I'm running those barefoot!

    I used to dance barefoot regularly (on cement, carpet, you name it) and there were a number of times I cut my foot open on rocks or glass before I switched to dancing in sandals. There's a reason why shoes were invented. - 12/11/2013 12:48:10 PM
  • I have had problems with heel pain in the past when running or exercising when wearing traditional running or cross-training shoes with the raised heels. And heel pain in general. My husband convinced me to try the minimalist shoes (I got the Vivobarefoot Breatho Trail-Running Shoes), and I just wore them when out on errands or short walks in the beginning. It feels odd at first, but after a few days, I was amazed that I didn't have any pain. I'm just beginning to wear them on the treadmill for jogging, but I am working into it very slowly. Honestly, now my feet hurt the most when I wear shoes with raised heels on them. It's worth trying them. For me, I think it may be the flatter alignment, and the close fit to the heels. I still need to be careful to stretch in mornings, and before and after workouts. So far, the minimalist shoes have helped me. - 11/14/2013 1:53:40 PM
  • what interests me is the number of runners i see running in flip flops lol and in the snow even that looks so funny what are they thinking??
    - 9/25/2013 3:58:13 PM
  • Foot specialist * - 9/24/2013 2:27:49 PM
  • After barefoot running for about a year, I have found it to eliminate shin splints and knee pain completely that I had felt previously with regular running shoes to the point where I was limping.

    HOWEVER.

    After seeing a food specialist, barefoot running has been the cause of collapsing arches, which puts me at risk for developing plantar fasciitis. I now have to switch back to regular runners with orthodics.

    So I'd say, talk to a professional. - 9/24/2013 2:27:05 PM
  • OF COURSE IT'S NOT FOR EVERYONE. That's a silly question. I love my Vibram FiveFingers, and I doubt I will ever go back to heavily cushioned shoes. But one message that's woven throughout SparkPeople is that we need to do what works for our own bodies and not follow fads. - 9/24/2013 1:49:42 PM
  • This is interesting b/c I've always preferred using my treadmill with bare feet and I thought I was an oddball haha. But shoes and outside harder surfaces give me shin splints. Barefoot is actually more comfortable for me. I don't know that I'd run around everywhere outside like that though. I will in the grass but that's it. - 9/24/2013 9:39:06 AM
  • I think this is one trend I'm going to sit out. I ran around barefoot all the time as a kid. I did not so much enjoy it when I got a nail stuck in my foot. I keep hearing that its natural but you know what is not natural - concrete. If it works for other people though that's great. - 9/24/2013 9:29:28 AM
  • I switched to a Merrell Vibram about a year ago. I will never go back to a regular running shoe. My toe would ache on my one foot and my Chiro said I was developing a flat foot.
    After reading the book on Barefoot running, I realized the problem was caused by my shoes.
    I have never had a problem with the toe since. - 9/24/2013 7:53:41 AM
  • I have to have shoe on. Even when I am in the house I wear my slippers. Can't stand not having on my shoes. When I was a kid loved it but now no way. - 9/24/2013 7:17:03 AM
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