Barefoot Running: Fad or For Real? A HealthCentral Explainer

CRegal Editor
  • Several years ago, Christopher McDougall released a book called Born to Run.  McDougall trained with Native-American tribes, some of whose members are capable of runs of 50 to 100 miles in a day.  McDougall attributed the endurance and ability to avoid injury to a handful of factors, chief among them that the Native-Americans ran barefoot.  According to McDougall, running barefoot changes your stride, making your gait more "natural," leading to fewer injuries.


    The theory goes that man was never meant to wear heavily padded shoes; in fact, wearing shock-absorbers on your feet may actually cause more injuries than running barefoot, as modern runners tend to absorb the blow to the pavement through the heel, which can cause problems with the hamstring and knee.  Your weight is not distributed in a natural way and the shoe absorbs the blow, likely saving you from immediate pain, but potentially causing future problems.

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    Running barefoot, on the other hand, forces the runner to land on the midfoot, shortening the stride and absorbing the blow with a bent knee, taking in the shock with the entire leg and its big muscles, rather than funneling the blow through the knee joint.


    That's the theory.  Many people have jumped on the fad, and "barefoot style" running shoes are all the rage – minimalist shoes now make up 15 percent of the running shoe market.  You know them – the rubber-sole-only shoes that have "fingers" around the toes may be the most popular.  The shoes have a rubber sole to provide some protection for your feet, but there is no cushioning to absorb the pavement pounding.  But does running like this actually prevent injuries?   Certainly nobody is claiming that running with a midfoot strike will turn a casual runner into an ultra-marathoner, but there has to be some science behind the movement, right? Or is it just a fad?


    Does running technique really make a difference?


    The first piece of damaging evidence for the barefoot movement is that elite long-distance runners do not necessarily avoid the heel strike style.  Dr. Iain Hunter, of Brigham Young University, analyzed the running styles of competitors in the 10,000-meter Olympic trials, and found that many of the best runners in the world used "poor" technique when running.  He concluded that running style had little bearing on speed or stride efficiency. In other words, changing your stride to be more "natural" does nothing to improve efficiency or increase stamina in running.  If the barefoot theory is valid, distance runners would be unable to compete with a heel-strike style.


    Next, research from George Washington University indicates that the ability to run extreme distances without shoes is less a product of barefoot running, and more a product of living a barefoot lifestyle.  The GW researchers studied habitually barefoot people in Kenya and found that many of the barefoot runners still landed heel-first; this contradicts McDougall's theory about how barefoot running forces a change in stride.  The researchers also noted that different running surfaces – some much harder than others – could influenced stride.  Running on pavement barefoot may also not be a very "natural" choice.


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    Can it really prevent injuries?


    Most importantly, does barefoot running really prevent injury?  Unfortunately, it does not seem to be the case.


    The most damning study was published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise in March 2013, indicating that barefoot running may not prevent injury at all, but instead may lead to different injuries.  A University of Nevada, Las Vegas research team found that mid- and forefoot strikers absorbed impact with the spine, and that landing on your heel was perceived as being more comfortable for runners.  While looking to avoid knee injuries, barefoot runners instead may be increasing their chances of developing lower back pain.


    Research from Brigham Young University also found that runners who transition too quickly from regular shoes to minimalist shoes are actually doing themselves significant harm – those who switch over without an appropriate transition period are increasing chances of bone damage in the feet, including stress fractures.  The researchers saw an accumulation of fluid in the feet bones of those who did not transition slowly, which indicates early bone injury. 


    So is barefoot running – or barefoot style running – better for you?  Scientific research tends to indicate that this may be just be a fad – when people start to realize that their backs hurt or that they can't run any farther or faster now that they are wearing minimalist shoes, the movement may come to an end.  Then again, with obesity becoming such a national problem, if people are up and moving, running and staying healthy, does it really matter which technique a person follows if it keeps them moving? Run however you feel comfortable.




    Delgado, T., Kubera-Shelton, E., Robb, R., Hickman, R., Wallmann, H., Dufek, J. (March 2013).  "Effects of foot strike on low back posture, shock attenuation, and comfort in running."  Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise vol. 45 (3):490-496.


    George Washington University.  (January 11, 2013). "Analysis Of Running Gaits Reveals Variation In Foot Strike Patterns Found In Predominantly Barefoot Runners." Medical News Today. Retrieved from


    Kolata, Gina. (October 15, 2012).  "Myths of running: forefoot, barefoot or otherwise."  The New York Times.  Retrieved from


    Reynolds, Gretchen.  (January 23, 2013).  "Is there one right way to run?"  The New York Times.  Retrieved from


    Reynolds, Gretchen.  (March 6, 2013).  "Barefoot running can cause injuries, too."  The New York Times.  Retrieved from


Published On: March 15, 2013