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I have heard a lot about the 'barefoot' running idea that has seemed to gain a lot of popularity with the book "Born to Run". The main idea is that the human foot has evolved to be very effective at running and by putting a lot of things in between it and the ground we more often cause problems then solve them. I don't plan to actually run barefoot but I was thinking of getting some Vibrams since the general idea seemed to make sense to me and they are designed with barefoot running in mind.

I have seen the flame war arguments about statistics on this so don't bother sharing any of that. What I am really looking for is information from people who have tried both running with traditional running shoes and have also tried running with something like Vibrams. I want to get an idea about what the difference has been for real people who have actually tried it and who don't have a vested interest in one side of the other.

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Rather than hearing ones personal experience, perhaps it would be better to get someone from a running shoe shop to share first hand experiences based on those of multiple runners. As far as I know there's a general lack of research on this topic at this moment, because they often exclude subjects with a history of injuries. Ironically, those are often the ones who claim the best results with minimal shoes... –  Ivo Flipse Mar 3 '11 at 12:29
    
Not a bad idea but I don't really know any good running shoe shops. It would be great if someone who does could ask about it. At the moment I'm just looking to gather some more info on the topic. It's an idea that seems to be at that awkward phase where the only people who know anything about it are passionately for or against it. Getting real info on it seems to be rather difficult –  AmaDaden Mar 3 '11 at 14:19
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Sadly you'll have to wait until after the private beta to get other experts in. But in its current shape, the question does invite users to just add their opinion, rather than 'facts' –  Ivo Flipse Mar 3 '11 at 14:42
    
+1 for reference to Born to Run, great book! –  Mild Fuzz Mar 3 '11 at 16:35
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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

11 Answers

up vote 35 down vote accepted

I have been running for about twenty years and always found the logic behind barefoot running quite compelling. If you want to read more about it after watching that video you can look at Harvard's Skeletal Biology Lab's Barefoot Running Website or just watch the compelling videos showing ground reaction forces for different types of foot strikes.

After becoming a father my running slipped to about four months of running a year leading to a big July 4th 10K in Atlanta, GA (The Peachtree Road Race), followed by eight months off.

A few years ago I decided to give barefoot running a try during my normal off season. I destroyed the soles of my feet a few times by running with bad form and trying to do too much too soon, but they healed up surprisingly quickly :-) ONE CANNOT PUT TOO MUCH EMPHASIS ON GOING SLOWLY WITH BAREFOOT RUNNING!

Eventually I bought a pair of Vibram Fivefinger KSOs and this made a huge difference. I would start out running a short distance barefooted to help me with my form, then put on the Vibrams and run a mile or so. Running in Vibrams made my feet sore for the first few weeks. This was muscular soreness most noticeable when I got out of bed each morning and the muscles in my feet were stiff. The soreness would go away after about five or ten minutes.

Eventually I stopped having sore feet and gradually worked my way up to a mile barefooted followed by three more in my VFFs - all on concrete and asphalt. I still run this way and really enjoy it. Last year I ran the last three miles of the Peachtree Road Race barefooted and it was hilarious. I got quite a few comments :-)

Now I consider myself to be a "Natural Runner", running as I would run barefooted but using minimalist footwear to protect the soles of my feet from the friction of concrete and asphalt. After running in VFFs for 5 years I am sure that I will never go back to traditional running shoes, though I also do not think barefooted running is practical if you are running on concrete and asphalt. One can do it, but it would take me more than a year of committed effort to develop the necessary toughness in the soles of my feet to put in 15 or 20 miles a week this way. These surfaces are just soooo abrasive!

From my current perspective, the notion that you would take a complex shock-absorbing structure like your foot and encase it in a shoe that filled-in the arch and presented a flat surface to the ground, then add shock-absorbing materials to the shoe and expect that to be "better" for your feet seems somewhat comical.

Of course that's just my opinion, I could be wrong :-)

UPDATE: 03/20/2012 I just found this video that gives a nice overview of why I decided to switch to minimalist and barefoot running.

UPDATE: 09/04/2013 I added links to Harvard's Skeletal Biology Lab's Barefoot Running Website and modified a sentence to reflect that fact that, 5 years in, I will certainly never go back to traditional running shoes.

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+1 If only for not too much emphases on going slowly! Besides your 'safe' approach should be a general guideline for everyone. Simply stop if it starts to hurt, else go for it and keep going! –  Ivo Flipse Mar 3 '11 at 22:22
    
@Jim, Can we run barefoot on tartan tracks? Or is it hazardous to do so? –  Pacerier Jan 18 at 1:11
    
@Pacerier, I have not run on a tartan track but I think it would be perfectly fine. Most of my barefoot running is on asphalt or cement so a tartan track surface should be much more forgiving. You just have to start slow and practice proper form for barefoot running. This stride produces much less jarring impact when you land and is pretty gentle on your feet. –  Jim Clark Jan 22 at 20:49
    
@JimClark, don't your feet get real dirty and impossible to clean afterwards? –  Pacerier Jan 24 at 6:26
    
@Pacerier, not as bad as you would think. All of my running was on asphalt or concrete. I would run a 1 to 3 miles barefooted, then put my shoes on. The inside of my shoes accumulated some stains, but nothing that effected their wearability. I would wash my feet with soap as normal in the shower and they basically came clean. –  Jim Clark Jan 28 at 16:21
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I've been trying minimalist ("barefoot") running for about 1 year now, using Vibram FiveFingers.

My reasons for trying it was that I was fed up with injuries, and constantly buying more expensive shoes with more cushioning. And when a physiotherapist wanted me to buy insoles in addition to the thick shock absorbance in my running shoes, I had enough. I don't consider myself damaged goods to a degree that requires me to spend that much money on protection.

So I went the other way.

I actually got inspired by this forum, when I accidentally came across answers to questions about running injuries, suggesting barefoot/minimalist running as a remedy.

I found a special offer for Vibram FiveFingers Bikila, and of course I overdid it the first period, and got very sore calves. Note that I overdid it because it was so much fun!

I've now run for about a year in VFFs, I have 3 pairs of VFFs for running, one pair for leisure.

I'm not going back to cushioned shoes, ever. The reasons are:

  • No injuries in VFFs (yet). My knee problems have gone, and I haven't had ankle sprains, which I got on a regular basis with cushioned shoes - when you think about it, wearing high heels and plateau shoes increases the risk of ankle sprains. So running in plateau shoes seems rather silly to me :-)

  • Speed. Running with VFFs immediately cut off 30-60 seconds of the time I use for running 1 Km. Most of my personal records are now set with VFFs.

  • Fun. I find it generally more fun to run minimalist.

If you find the whole mindset behind minimalist running appealing ("your feet were made to run, so drop the packaging and cushioning"), you should really try it - chances are you'll love it. But remember to take it slowly, and listen to your body.

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Today I read this blog article on the NY Times blog, about the comparison between barefoot running and traditional (cushioned) running. Especially it compares the forefoot landing and heel landing styles, which is not exactly the same distinction but closely related.

The article also cites the Journal of applied physiology but with focus on the economy of each running style in terms of oxygen consumption and carbohydrates versus fat burning. Their conclusion is that heel landing guarantees a lower amount of oxygen and carbohydrates consumed per footstrike, suggesting a higher autonomy and a higher rate of fat burning.

None of the sources reports about the effects of both running styles on biomechanics, but I'm going to read some literature to find something.

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Here is a good overview from Tim Ferriss on his blog. http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2009/05/07/vibram-five-fingers-shoes/

The main benefits are the more natural and less injury-prone style of running that shoes like it promote and the increased workout for you feet while running.

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Hi @Ross, could you summarize the blog post and elaborate on the main points some more? That would make this a great answer to the question. –  Matt Chan Jan 11 '12 at 3:24
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I am 29 years old, battled being overweight for a number of years. Paleo nutrition and weighlifting got it under control for me in a big way, but running even as a child was terrible for me. Winded in seconds, shin splints so painful I'd fall down after a few hundred feet. For years no matter what shoe of any shape or size I tried I would get terrible shin splints.

Last year I picked up vibrams KSO's not for running but for lounging about, little did I know that some time later I'd end up running my ass off in them. Fast forward some time later, I can now run a few miles at a time with very little effort and have not had even the slightest bit of pain whether I'm barefoot or in the vibrams. Its worked for me.

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I'll write about barefoot training and my college career. I'm a few years out of college now and planning on getting back into shape, but my college training makes a nice, compact case study.

Note: The barefoot/shod dichotomy is mixed up with hard/soft surfaces one in my training history. I once ran just two miles barefoot on the roads. Shortly after that I learned I had a metatarsal stress fracture. I don't know for sure that that one run caused it, but it scared me enough that I refused to run barefoot on anything harder than dirt. I would run barefoot whenever I was running on something soft, then put on shoes when I ran on something hard. Because of this, I can't say that barefoot is the key factor in what I'm about to describe, as compared to simply soft surfaces in general.

First a short back story, then barefoot vs. shoes.

I ran in DIII, so I was a competitive runner, but not at a high level. I mostly trained around 60 - 70 miles per week when things were going well. I improved consistently; my 5000m times were

  • Frosh: DNR (4:32 1500m)
  • Soph: ~16:20 or so
  • Junior: 15:46
  • Senior: 15:28
  • 5th year: 15:21

I improved, but I was also consistently injured. I had to take between two weeks and three months off over and over again. I'd cross train in the swimming pool or on the bike, then return to training and competition when I was mostly-healed. I spent at least a third of my time injured.

Searching for a possible cure, I started running barefoot in the summer after my freshman year, motivated by reading online message boards (this was well before Born to Run) and talking with my running mentor. I began with short barefoot jogs on grass at a nearby park. The main thing I noticed at first was that my calves were consistently sore after barefoot runs. However, each week I could run a little further, and within three months I could do full, ten-mile runs barefoot without any soreness.

From that point on, I alternated between barefoot and shod running. I preferred barefoot running because I liked the feel of the contact with the ground and the lightness of my feet. I also came to believe that it was better for me in terms of injuries, so I tried to run barefoot when I could. Since my school was very small and much more academically-focused than athletically-focused, our team was fairly loosely-organized, and the coaches gave me a lot of liberty to train the way I wanted.

However, my teammates and friends only occasionally wanted to run laps around the field with me, and I did not want to run barefoot any other way. So, in order to run with my friends and train with my team, I would eventually decide that running in shoes was fine, then lace them up and go off running on the roads. Then I would get hurt.

A litany of my injuries includes achilles tendinitis, groin strain, ITB syndrome, metatarsal stress fracture, tibial stress fracture, unexplained foot pain, and maybe some minor ones I'm forgetting. It was actually a pretty consistent pattern - each major injury I suffered came after a period where I started doing more running on roads in shoes. I came to associate all hard surfaces with imminent danger.

However, when I say it was a consistent pattern, it would be more accurate to phrase it like this:

I believed strongly that running on soft surfaces was much better for me. This belief was mostly built on personal anecdote, personal observation, and considerable bias based on the prevailing attitude among my running friends and reading articles and message boards online. Because of this belief, I have a strong bias when examining my own training logs. Yes, I can see a pattern when I look at my training logs. And yes, despite acknowledging my own bias, I still believe I am correct - running on roads and other hard surfaces is much worse for me than running on trails or grass fields. But since I mixed both forms of running day in and day out, and because injuries form over long periods of time, I cannot unambiguously extricate the two forms' separate influence on me. I do not know that running barefoot on soft surfaces is better, but nonetheless I will swear it. While I acknowledge the irrationality of this position, it is simply how I feel.

I made no attempt to run slowly while going barefoot. I ran lots of barefoot striders across the fields, sometimes sprinting all out. In fact it is a common practice among high school and college cross country runners to run their normal daily run in shoes, then finish with barefoot striders across a field; I've seen people doing it all across the country.

When I was my fittest, in my fifth year, I would run most days barefoot, going at a comfortable speed, then wrapping up the pace to something fast in the last couple miles of the run as long as I felt good. I would run up to about 90 minutes this way. To be specific, "a comfortable speed" back then meant about 7:00/mi on the slow side and 6:20/mi on the fast side. "Wrapping up the pace" over the last bit meant I might run that last two miles in 11:00 or 10:30 for a long run. So I had no qualms about running fairly fast while barefoot.

Then one or two days a week I would run harder workouts in shoes on the track or on a 1.5 mile trail nearby. That, with a little gym work, was the entirety of my training. There were no hills, no plyos, etc. I don't deny those things are useful training tools, but with just barefoot aerobic running and some straightforward speedwork, I got very fit compared to the rest of my college career, in which I employed more diverse training. (Despite this fitness, I raced only a few seconds faster that year than I did when still on the team, which is part of why I want to get back into that kind of shape and hit some good times again.)

I think the difference was that I stayed healthy for about eight straight months that fifth year, which was rare for me. Consistent training beats intense training, and I came to believe that running the majority of my miles barefoot on the grass protected me from the pounding my body would otherwise have taken on the roads.

Now, several years later, I am working on getting back into shape. I run on soft surfaces, sometimes in light shoes and sometimes barefoot depending on the venue. So there's my barefoot story.

I do have two more anecdotes, though.

First: Two years ago I was living in Berkeley, so I went to see a big track meet the school was hosting. Afterwards, I went to the baseball field behind the track to do some barefoot jogging. A guy came out and started setting up hurdles for drills. When I got close, I realized it was Olympian Bolota Asmerom. I helped him set up the hurdles to have a chance to talk to him for a couple minutes. He commented on me running barefoot and said, "Hey, have you checked out those new shoes? The Vibrams? They're pretty sweet." So there's one endorsement for you.

Second: While I was an undergrad, there were two grad students who would occasionally come run with us. They were brothers and both good athletes. One had been a highly-successful prep runner and gone on to compete in DI as a collegian. The other converted to running from college baseball after graduation. They were hardcore into barefoot running, and would happily run barefoot anywhere. One year on Thanksgiving they ran a 30-some mile route to the beach barefoot through the streets and sidewalks of Los Angeles. They were both big guys, too, maybe 180 pounds each. They told me that if you just look where you're going you probably won't step on much glass. I guess some people can pull off any sort of barefoot. They never converted me to barefoot running on the roads, even though they frequently offered to take me.

They started marathon training sometime around the beginning of my senior year. These guys were both pretty big jokers, a bit on the crazy side, although perhaps not as extreme as the young couple in Born to Run. (One of them did go on about the barefoot chapter in that book for half an hour during a barefoot run around the infield of the track.) I didn't think they were taking their marathon training too seriously; they were both grad students and therefore had little free time. Neither of them were on teams any more. They were just a couple of laid-back guys who loved being a bit eccentric and enjoying life. Sure, when I saw them run, they were still running real workouts and all, but I figured they probably weren't putting in the same time and energy they used to.

One day, having not run into them for a few weeks, someone linked me to a news story online. It was from the local paper where their marathon was. It featured a picture of the older brother, six-foot-two with a giant golden afro, hammering down main street through this town. Both barefoot, they had gone 1-2 in the marathon.

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would you be interested to write a blog post about this for the Fitness.SE blog? –  Ivo Flipse Nov 2 '11 at 8:44
    
Hi Ivo. I'll email you now. –  Mark Eichenlaub Nov 2 '11 at 13:15
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My response is strictly personal experience.

I have never been a runner. I was a swimmer with awful knees and every time I tried to begin a running program I would purchase the best shoes I could at the local running store and start on a walk-run program. Inevitably the knees would prevent me from progressing.

One year ago this summer I bought my first pair of VFFs (sprint). I spent an entire year walking in them daily - forgoing traditional shoes of any kind unless necessary (more than a couple inches of snow, event that required appropriate dress).

Beginning 3 months ago, I started a run-walk program with the VFFs on a soft gravel track around my local park. After the initial ankle adjustment (about 3 weeks) there was no discomfort and I have been able to run two 5Ks since, with two more on tap this fall. I can now run on asphalt and concrete as well. I also notice I am more comfortable running with a forefoot strike as opposed to midfoot.

No knee pain, and I feel stronger with every run. I will never go back to traditional running shoes. For the winter I plan to purchase the 'Flow' model for increased warmth and wear toe socks.

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There was an elite runner in my area back about 10 years ago who went barefoot and he was awesome. However, he grew up running in that manner and had grown accustomed to it. Indeed, if it does not feel to weird you can do it.

In my 20 years as a runner I have never done it for (very real) fear of glass, nails and other nasties. Taking a light jog on a track feels quite refreshing and I would recommend it. I just don't think my suburban/urban streets and sidewalks really allow for it too often.

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I recently purchased a pair of Merrell True Glove minimalist shoes. Can't say enough about how much I like them.

Note, as a runner I've always had a mostly forefoot strike, since I was a sprinter in high school and did all of my training in my track spikes. This continued through my time in the Army, and even though I had a running hiatus of practically 5 years, when I started running again in January I still found it easier and more natural to run forefoot-first.

Back to the True Gloves. Even though my Asics weren't/aren't heavy, the Merrells definitely feel lighter on my feet. I've only run on a treadmill with them so far, as the weather has been bad, but the True Gloves make the landing much more vivid. Every stride I know exactly which part of my foot is in contact with the belt. The actual mechanics of my stride haven't changed much, the main difference being that now my heel only lightly touches down.

I've heard a lot about the importance of easing into minimalist running, and after 3 short (10 minute) runs in my True Gloves, my calves are definitely feeling the difference between running forefoot first and letting the cushioned soles of my Asics pick up some weight, and running forefoot first with no cushioned soles chipping in to the shock absorption system.

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I think one thing to remember is the role of the foot as a sensory organ is huge. The feedback that we get from the running support surface is vital to our gait and our foot’s role as the first line of defence and stability for the body. This is one of the biggest benefits’ of true barefoot running. Although the minimal shoes do free up many of the planes of motions and with the unrestricted ROM we are better able to develop a more ideal gait and a rehabilitation of the musculoskeletal system, the minimal shoes still to a certain extent acts as a sensory insulator to the sensorimotor system. Regardless of which minimal shoe you purchase you should think about accentuating its benefits with the use a biofeedback based insole (see barefoot science for one example). Devices of this type interact with the sole of the foot itself through a progressive means and thus are able to mimic the sensory feedback you would normally be receiving from the ground itself. Above all else – be patient and take it slow. You are now working some muscles that have been braced, supported and subsequently have atrophied for probably decades. Slow and steady wins the race.

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Care to add some references for the sensory part? I'm mildly curious to find out more about it –  Ivo Flipse Mar 21 '11 at 23:19
    
@Ivo I think I can. Basically your foot does not want to get hurt. To avoid that it will naturally change the way it hits the floor to protect it self. This will give you a better landing with no thought on your part at all. However, to do this it needs to feel the ground. Standard running shoes prevent this with all their cushioning. The book 'Born to Run' goes in to this and the rest of barefoot theory more. If you're interested I highly recommend reading it. FIY the theory only comes up about half way through. –  AmaDaden Apr 8 '11 at 12:48
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I have an old problem with my knee from mountain biking and I am also terribly bad at running. As a result, running never really worked out for me. My knee would hurt making the whole experience sour. This also applied for treadmills.

When I did various martial arts I would run barefoot in the gym during the workouts and I was surprised to see that my knee didn't bother me at all. So I bought myself a pair of those Vibrams and started running outdoors with them.

Impressions:

  • I run a lot better and faster than I do normally; the feeling is amazing.
  • As long as I keep to fairly soft surfaces (i.e. avoiding running on the street), my knees are happy, my back is happy, all is good.
  • When you first start running barefoot, your feet might get sore because you're not used to it, but it goes away in a few weeks.

Keeping in mind that this experience is from an UNEXPERIENCED runner, let me just say that running barefoot is one of the best things I did for myself :)

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You may want to clarify where you get sore the first few times while running barefoot. For example, for most people your calves will hurt much more while running barefoot, especially if you're doing a forefoot strike (like you're supposed to). –  Pridkett Mar 3 '11 at 20:23
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Well, for me it was just my feet that got sore; especially the mid-foot area. Feel free to build on top of my answer if you have more info on that :) –  Alex Florescu Mar 4 '11 at 3:03
    
When you do Martial arts the emphasis is on stability, so you are trained not to use your heel but the front side of your foot. This can cause you to bring that over while running and thus not using your heel (at least not as much) while running which in turn damages your knee. I am experiencing this now (have done an footanalysis which shows you how you run) and need to learn how to run yet again :) –  Stormenet Mar 11 '11 at 8:33
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I don't know much about running otherwise, but when you're running "natural" or barefoot you should never land on your heel. You want to use your natural "spring" mechanism to absorb the shock and also help you move forward. When you're using footwear, perhaps it's different. –  Alex Florescu Mar 11 '11 at 14:29
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