Barefoot Running: Breakthrough or Trend?

runningRunning is widely-regarded as one of the most beneficial types of exercise. First, it’s been proven to improve your overall health; using running as exercise reduces your risk of high blood pressure, breast cancer, stroke and diabetes. It’s also great for weight loss because it’s a highly caloric-burning activity. In 30 minutes of running (depending on pace, of course) a 155lb person can burn about 335 calories. When you run frequently, your lung, heart and muscle strength also increase. And running has been linked to better mental health, as well. Sufferers of depression, anxiety and high stress often find relief through running, and it’s often recommended as part of a treatment plan by doctors.

In addition to its benefits, running is cheap, low-maintenance and rewarding. Tracking your progress is easier than many other exercises; all you need to do is count distance or use a stopwatch to see how far you can push yourself each time. It can also be a reflective, private exercise that provides quiet moments of clarity and contemplation. Its simplicity is often its appeal; you don’t need an expensive gym membership to hit the pavement for some exercise. All you need is a good pair of running shoes and you’re set. Or… do you even need the shoes?

Obviously, human civilization has been running before running shoes were even invented. So how is that we, pre-Adidas, didn’t do damage to our bodies without the proper pedal support? The damage might have been less prevalent than you’d think…

A study led by Harvard scientist Dr. Daniel E. Lieberman and published in a prestigious research journal, Nature Magazine, showed that barefoot runners created less collision forces when they ran than those that run in running shoes. The paper about their study titled, “Foot Strike Patterns and Collision Forces in Habitually Barefoot Versus Shod Runners,” explains that when barefoot runners (called unshod runners) hit the ground with their feet, they are landing either on the forefront or center of their foot. On the other hand, those wearing running shoes (called shod runners) are landing on the heel of their foot. To prove that people can run safely and comfortably with minimal to no footwear, Dr. Lieberman and his team studied five groups of people to see the difference between shod runners and unshod runners. The groups were:


  • US adult athletes who had always worn shoes;
  • US adult runners who grew up wearing shoes but now run barefoot or with minimal footwear;
  • Kenyan adult runners who grew up barefoot but now wear cushioned running shoes;
  • Kenyan adolescents who have never worn shoes, and
  • Kenyan adolescents who have worn shoes for most of their lives.


These groups were tested at endurance speeds from 4 to 6 meters per second in indoor and outdoor environments. The results showed that most shod runners strike the ground with their heels when they run. This makes them prone to repetitive stress injuries, such as in the knees and ankles. On the other hand, unshod runners land toward the middle or front of their feet. This is safer for runners because there is less force and strain on the feet. According to the study, “This difference results primarily from a more plantar- flexed foot at landing and more ankle compliance during impact, decreasing the effective mass of the body that collides with the ground.”

This scientific evidence corresponds with what many dedicated runners are now experimenting with: barefoot running. Some individuals swear by this choice, citing a relief to repetitive impact injuries and a better overall experience. And to tackle the challenge that barefoot running poses in terms of uncovered skin against hard terrain, many companies have developed shoes that mimic the feel of being barefoot but with added protection. The Nike Free, VibramFiveFingers, and Newton Shoes are just three examples. The FiveFingers is similar to gloves, but for your feet. They have minimal padding and separate sockets for your toes. These shoes allow your feet to flex and move as if you really were barefoot.

Of course, though, running barefoot isn’t for everyone — especially if you have severe pronation or supination. A shoe store employee or doctor should be able to tell you if you have either, and which shoes are best to correct and/or accommodate either case. And while your initial reaction to seeing runners wearing strange toe-sock-like shoes might be to scoff at the trend, scientific evidence suggests that this may be a breakthrough in exercise that is safe, effective, and here to stay.

Guest Post Author Bio: Angie Picardo is a staff writer for NerdWallet, a site dedicated to best information on green investing.

So, have you ever tried barefoot running?


Barefoot Running: Breakthrough or Trend? — 23 Comments

  1. I have tried barefoot running on the beach and loved it. Now I am getting back into running and got some new shoes that aren’t fivefingers, although that is a good suggestion to be protected with the same sensation as barefoot running.

  2. It looks fun and interesting, but I still think it’s dangerous because it might be less damaging on the foot, but shoes are made not just to protect the feet when landing on the ground. They protect the feet from things that would harm them on the street such as sharp objects.

    • The new barefoot shoes help protect from debris on the ground. As far as impacting the skeletal structure of the foot, I am not sure what the evidence says. I do know that people often wear the wrong runners for their foot and this too can cause issues.

  3. It’s interesting how human evolution affects the body and how, when we try and adjust that evolution, it’s not always in our best interest. I don’t run, but I might have to give barefoot walking a try. 😉

  4. I feel like I get the best of both worlds with the Nike Free shoes that I wear. They are ultra lightweight, but do not have the 5 separate toe slots. Its designed to feel like running barefoot, but it has the protection of actual footwear.

  5. Humankind survived before without shoes but that’s what innovation and invention is all about. To give us comfort and to keep us from being hurt. It really hurts running around barefoot.

  6. I have sever UNDER pronation, and I have a weird foor anatomy, so not only do I wear shoes, I wear orthotics!

  7. Sadly I can’t barefoot run since I have extremely flat feet and have to wear my runners. What’s crazy is I remember my PE teacher in middle school telling me to run heel toe when completing endurance runs…I guess that wasn’t the best advice.

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