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I have been told by the doctor that barefoot walking is good as long as it is on a rugged surface (grass, gravel, sand, ...) but I should not walk barefoot on a pavement or home.

Simultaneously, there is advice encouraging bare foot running for flatfooters. The arguments are that it encourages the runner to land and take off the front part of the leg, instead of the heel, thus reducing pronation during the running session itself and strenghtening the calf, thus preventing further pronation.

My problem is that I live in an area, where it is impossible to find a long enough patch of rugged surface. All my running sessions are approximately 4 km, out of which only 1.5 is on a rugged surface, the rest is on pavement. I have been running for 2 months barefoot, so far so good, but I would like to know the long term effect of this.

Is there some research on the topic? Do you have some personal experience?

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Here is an excellent site with a lot of research: barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu –  michael Sep 13 '12 at 3:18
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@michael thanks for the link. A friend of mine who is an orthopedic surgeon said when I asked him about the theory of improving flat feet with barefoot running that the idea sounds plausible but it will still be many years before we have enough medical data to prove it. –  vertti Jan 31 '13 at 7:31
    
@michael: How about expanding that into an answer? The question seems to have attracted a lot of answers that probably aren't very reliable because they're accounts of individuals' experiences. –  Ben Crowell Nov 27 '13 at 16:26
    
I don't like my feet being closed in inside shoes so I wear Barefoot Feet for both walking and running. One reason I like them is because they are made out of wetsuit neoprene material which means I can run and walk through puddles and don't ruin my expensive sneakers. –  user10706 Sep 15 at 1:04

7 Answers 7

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I've been doing some barefoot running on pavement as a way to help with flat feet and pronation. For awhile I tried to increasing the distance but then I started to feel some minor aches under my foot and on the outside of my ankle. My biggest fear was developing a stress fracture so I've since limited the barefoot run to 5 or 10 minutes as a warm up and then I'll do my regular run using minimalist shoes.

I've heard of people running much longer distances without any problems. For me, I can tell that the barefoot runs are helping improve my form and address some of issues related to over pronation, but I don't think everything has adjusted yet to the point where my foot can absorb the impact forces of landing on the road as well as a normal pronator. I've written about some my experiences with this here: www.somastruct.com.

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If you're running short distances I don't think it'll be much of a problem, especially if you can choose your route. Where it's really a problem is if you're running a long distance race with a fixed course and you're forced to deal with a slant on the path that only goes in one direction - that's hell on the ankles, knees, hips, and well everything. That's one situation where having a cushion to absorb the height difference a bit could actually be a benefit.

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I have extremely flat feet and have been barefoot running several years, usually on dirt trails. Although I can't say that the flatness has been affected, I do notice less soreness and faster recovery than when I ran with shoes. At one point I had trained up to three miles at a stretch, then tried a ten mile race on pavement, which gave me sore achilles and calves for 24-48 hours. But while running barefoot I have never had any stress fractures, shin splints, knee pain, nor any cuts or puncture wounds for that matter. I highly recommend it, with a proper gradual introduction of course.

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I have very flat feet, and i have started barefoot/VFF running a couple of years ago. I have no problems running 10-15 miles on concrete and or pavement. In fact, it is easier for me after the winter, when my feet get tender and feel all those little rocks and roots too much. I may carry my VFFs or Altra Adams in my fanny pack in case the surface gets too hot or too cold.

The only problem I keep getting again and again is that my soles get kind of hard, and sometimes they crack a little bit. Kerasal softens them in a few days.

Also I think that whenever we need to run barefoot in the darkness, it is safer to run on paved surfaces, even if we carry headlamps.

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Running on soft surfaces helps strengthen feet muscles and tendons and that's why it is considered highly beneficial by some podiatrists (given that weak feet are one of the main causes of fallen arches) What's more, a part of the essential foot stretches for flat feet includes gripping objects and stretching your feet over them so you can see how running on sand/gravel/soil barefoot acts like a natural stretching exercise which also strengthens key muscles and tendons. However, if you over do it, it may cause more harm than good.

On the other hand, running on pavement gives your feet a lot more impact force to absorb, thus presenting a more straining activity to your feet. Then again, is certain cases barefoot running on hard surfaces might be more beneficial than on soft. You need to remember that there are never two identical organisms and two identical conditions. The best thing you can do is experiment and for that you need to know how your feet specifically react to running.

If you find hard surfaces to be too painful, there are numerous brands and types of arch supporting shoes which have, once again to be picked by your personal characteristics. Here's a really long descriptive tutorial on how to do that - http://happyrunningfeet.com/the-best-running-shoes-for-flat-feet-3-critical-tests/

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Sorry if this is a bit off-topic but I'd just like to share something as a heavy, flat-footed person. I'm 216 pounds at 5'10 and pretty much completely flat-footed, needless to say, running with regular shoes just doesn't work, I'll get some really intense pain in my lower legs after just a few km.

Although very skeptical about the shoe business and their claims, I eventually bought a pair of running shoes with plenty of support and also insoles with high arch for flatfooted people, and it actually worked very well, I finished a 10 km race without too much pain.

I know about the "you should strengthen your feet to overcome it" argument, but I just don't think that always works, there are limits to what the body can overcome and if you are heavy like me, those limits aren't as generous.

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Short answer: I would agree with your doctor's assessment unless you already have healthy, strong feet. These would probably be able to take (and perhaps even profit from) hard concrete surfaces. If your feet are not in their best of health, do foot strengthening exercises, and/or walk on softer, natural, rugged surfaces to get your feet into shape first.

Long answer: (See also sources below.)

As others have already said, walking on hard surfaces without any shoes (i.e. cushioning under your foot soles) means an additional impact shock force on your body every time you land one of your feet on the ground. Our bodies apparently need some kind of feedback from taking a step, so that impact force isn't all bad; but it probably shouldn't get too strong. If you hit the ground on your heels, that force will be felt all the way up to your neck; that is, it travels unhindered across all the bony structures and joints in your legs and spine. It's virtually not absorbed by your body at all. That's probably going to give you some back pain very soon, so I would advise you avoid this kind of walking step.

Many people who start to walk barefoot soon automatically develop a different kind of step pattern: They strike the ground with the forefoot, or mid-foot. Because the foot has two arch structures (one along the length of the foot, one across the forefoot, both held in place by ligaments and muscles), these will help absorb the impact shock force. Another place where the shock gets absorbed with this kind of stepping is in the ankle joint.

(Try the difference between walking on your heels and forefoot for yourself: Walk barefoot on a hard surface right now, and you will notice that with a forefoot walking pattern, you don't feel, and hear, each step you're taking nearly as much (perhaps not at all) as the "bump", "bump" of heel walking.)

Now, assuming you've adopted a forefoot step pattern, and that your feet aren't in best health — let's say you have splayfeet (i.e. the arch across your forefoot has collapsed) and an unstable/weak ankle joint, then walking on hard surfaces like pavement could easily lead to problems:

  • Because of the splayfoot, the forefoot won't be able to absorb much of the step impact, and your ankle joint will have to do more of that work. This could easily lead to an overworked angle, and from there to ankle pain and inflammation.

  • Again, with splay feet, meaning the forefoot arch won't absorb any of the impact force of a step, this might not just overload the ankle, but also other structures in your forefoot. You might start to feel pain in your foot "knuckles" (sorry, I don't know the proper word for it). When you've been walking barefoot for a while, when you take a look at your foot soles, you should notice that your skin is more used, and therefore thicker, right beneath the big toe "knuckle" and beneach the pinky toe "knuckle". That's how it should be for healthy feet. However, if you also notice considerably thicker skin (pads) beneath the middle toe "knuckles" (which is likely with splayfeet), that might indicate problems to come.

So my advice would be:

  • Listen to your doctor and exercise your feet mostly on natural, rugged surfaces. (Flat stone doesn't count, even when it's not concrete. :-) Walk on grass, in forests, on sand (but build it up slowly here!); if the terrain is uneven and you have to go up and down, that's even better (but again don't overdo sloped terrain in the beginning).

  • Perhaps do some foot muscle, ankle, and lower leg strengthening exercises. Strong muscles help relieve and protect your ligaments and joints.

  • Do go walking on pavement and other hard surfaces, but let your feet get used to it slowly.


Sources:

  • Myself. I have been walking barefoot, at some time in the past, for approx. 1 1/2 years non-stop. This included lots of walking in cities, forest walks, climbing a volcano, and some other strange locations. And I've experienced all of the problems I described above.

  • A wonderful book called "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. This is quite likely the best book on barefoot running outside the academic world. It's both well-researched and some good story telling. You can't go wrong with that book.

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