The basics of barefoot/minimalist running

Running barefoot has, of course, been around since the beginning of humankind. Running-specific shoes, on the other hand, are a much more recent phenomenon, but one that quickly dominated the running landscape.

Today, the barefoot running motion has become popular again. Why? And, are the barefoot-running motion and minimalist shoes right for you? This article helps you to decide.

For more about your minimalist footwear choices, see the REI Expert Advice article, Minimalist Running Shoes: How to Choose.

Why Go Minimalist?

You may be surprised to learn that running-specific shoes didn't really appear in the U.S. until the mid-1960s. That’s when a company called Blue Ribbon Sports began importing Tiger shoes from Japan. Blue Ribbon Sports—which in 1978 became Nike—eventually created a new running-shoe industry by beefing up cushioning, giving more stability and adding pronation control.

But after decades of increasingly high-tech shoes, some runners began questioning their purpose and effectiveness. Their answer: Go back to basics and run barefoot, or use a minimalist shoe to imitate barefoot running but with a bit of protection.

So what led to this conclusion?

The Harvard Study and nature Magazine

In January 2010, nature magazine published an article about a Harvard University study that focused on foot-strike patterns and the impact of running barefoot versus running with shoes. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Runner's World and many others followed with articles on the study, and the "barefoot phenomenon" took off.

Some misinterpreted the Harvard study to mean barefoot runners were less likely to have injuries and could run faster. But the study merely showed that people "were able to land comfortably and safely when barefoot or in minimal footwear by landing with a flat foot (midfoot strike) or by landing on the ball of the foot before bringing down the heel (forefoot strike)."

Running shoes, on the other hand, feature cushioning, elevated heels and extra weight. These factors cause most runners to heel strike (heel hitting first). See the foot strike basics section of this article for a closer look at foot-strike patterns.

In this nature video, Dr. Daniel Lieberman, one of the leaders of the Harvard study, states that midfoot and forefoot striking (shod or barefoot) does not cause the sudden, large impacts that occur when you heel strike. The study deduced that barefoot (midfoot striking) runners can run on hard surfaces without discomfort from the landing.

Lieberman further states that when running barefoot, one lands on the fourth and fifth metatarsal and then the heel goes down. "That," he says, "converts energy into rotational energy." Heel striking, in contrast, results in the heel coming to a stop during the running motion. Lieberman cautions, however, that "no study has shown that heel striking contributes more to injury than forefoot striking."

For details, see the complete nature article (requires log in and a fee of $18). You can also read this update to the study published on the Harvard site.

The Born to Run Book

Born to Run book

When runner Christopher McDougall started asking, "Why does my foot hurt?" he ended up answering the question in the bestseller Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.

The book examines running mechanics by focusing on the little-known Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. Tarahumaras young and old can run 100 or more miles a day through rugged Copper Canyon in the state of Chihuahua wearing only thin-soled sandals made out of old tires and leather.

This book has inspired a small but growing group of runners to ditch their traditional running shoes to try running more naturally.

The Success of Barefoot Athletes

A number of runners over the years have achieved great success running barefoot. A few notables:

  • Ethiopian Abebe Bikila become the first black African to win a gold medal, winning the 1960 Summer Olympics marathon. He trained running barefoot and, when his shoe sponsor's shoes didn't fit, he ran in the Olympics barefoot.
  • Zola Budd grew up running barefoot in South Africa and became a British citizen to be able to compete in the Olympics. In 1984, she set a world record in the 5K.
  • Kenyan Tegla Loroupe grew up running barefoot. She holds world records for 20, 25 and 30K and is a 3-time world half-marathon and former Olympic marathon world-record holder. In 1995 and 1999, she won the Goodwill Games 10K running barefoot.

Foot Strike Basics

Heel Strike

The heel hits the ground first and the lower leg comes to a stop during impact while the body continues to move across the knee. Most runners who wear traditional running shoes are heel strikers. Upon impact, the heel is absorbing 2 to 3 times of the body’s weight.

See this heel-strike demonstration video from the Harvard study.

Midfoot Strike

The runner lands on the ball of the foot, landing below the hip, and the heel may or may not brush the ground. The impact on the larger foot surface reduces the force, and the knees also act as shock absorbers.

Here’s a New Balance video about midfoot strike as part of an overall "good form" running strategy.

Forefoot Strike

This is very similar to a midfoot strike. The ball of the foot strikes the ground below the fourth and fifth metatarsal and the heel may or may not brush the ground. Less of the body comes to a stop at impact, and there is more bounce and less impact radiating to the knees, hips and back than in heel striking.

See this forefoot-strike demonstration video from the Harvard study.

Foot strike basics

How to Get Started Barefoot Running

While anyone can try running barefoot or in minimalist running shoes, not everyone will be able to do so successfully. For instance, if you have plantar fasciitis, tendonitis, flat feet, bunions or hammertoes, it may not be for you. Check with your doctor first.

As noted earlier, the key to the barefoot transition is to start gradually.

First, acclimate your feet:

  • If you are going barefoot, start by just standing on gravel. You need to build up toughness on the soles of your feet.
  • Walk first. Then work into running with the new stride.
  • Try running a short distance on a soft surface such as wet sand, grass or rubberized track.

Practice your mechanics:

  • Practice landing on your midfoot versus your heel. Don't be afraid to let the heel contact the ground—but concentrate on striking with the midfoot first.
  • Keep your foot parallel to the ground under the center of your body.
  • Be careful. Your arch muscles will probably be weak, you'll be using more strength in the calf muscles and your Achilles tendon may get stiff.
  • Don't overstride. Use short strides and a quick cadence with your midfoot strike.
  • When starting a new stride, quickly lift your foot off of the ground rather than pushing off as in traditional running shoes.
  • The landing should feel gentle and relaxed.

Gradually increase your distance:

  • Start slowly and build up slowly. Make gradual transitions incorporating the new running method into your traditional running methods.
  • Don't do too much too soon. Try using the 10% rule—no more than 10% a week in both distance and foot-strike change.
  • Build muscular strength and endurance.

Dr. Larry Maurer, a Seattle-area podiatrist and barefoot-running consultant for Brooks footwear, suggests making just one training change per month to isolate variables and changes to your body and running. For instance, one month you might work on changing your gait from heel striking to a midfoot striking; in subsequent months, you increase distance, add speed workouts or include hills.

In addition, Dr. Maurer says you may even want to consider a progression of shoe types. Depending on your running style, this could mean transitioning from a motion-control shoe to a stability shoe for a couple months, then a neutral shoe, then a minimalist shoe, then Vibram FiveFingers and lastly go barefoot.

Caution:

  • Consult your physician before trying minimalist or barefoot running, particularly if you struggle with plantar fasciitis or other ailments.
  • Remember to gently stretch your calf and arch muscles.
  • Listen to your body. If you are feeling any pain, stop.

Barefoot Running FAQs

Vibram Fivefingers Bikila

Q: What exactly is a minimalist shoe?

A: There is an increasing range of minimalist offerings. The pioneering Vibram FiveFingers are characterized by a mere 2-3mm sole material and zero "heel drop" (i.e., height of heel compared to the height of the forefoot). Other styles have a low heel (from 4-8mm of "heel drop") and some cushioning in the rear and forefoot. The soles are not stiff and will twist easily from the center to the midfoot. This allows natural movement in the arch. See the REI Expert Advice article, Barefoot/Minimalist Running Shoes: How to Choose.

Q: Will I get fewer injuries using a forefoot or midfoot strike?

A: Barefoot or minimalist running is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S., and most claims of fewer injuries such as shin splints and knee problems are supported only through anecdotal evidence. Advocates claim that since forefoot or midfoot striking is shown to cause less impact on a runner’s body, it could prove to be the case. However, forefoot and midfoot striking put more strain on the Achilles tendon; depending on which kinds of injuries you are most susceptible to, altering your form may or may not be beneficial.

Q: Can I go barefoot running in cold weather?

A: Running barefoot is not recommended in very cold conditions when you could slip or get frostbite. A minimalist shoe would be the better choice since it offers more protection and warmth.

Q: Can I wear FiveFingers shoes if I have a latex allergy?

A: Vibram states there are trace amounts of latex used in the shoes and people with latex allergies should avoid wearing the shoe.

Q: Should I wear socks with minimalist shoes?

A: It’s largely personal preference, but socks can help to absorb sweat, reduce friction on hot spots and provide warmth. For Vibram FiveFingers shoes, choose socks with individual toe sleeves such as those from Injinji.

Q: I’ve heard about a couple of alternative running styles. What are they?

A: Two styles have become more popular. ChiRunning is based on tai chi and uses a midfoot strike and a nominally midfoot-cushioned shoe with a low-profile heel. Supporters believe it takes the strain off of knees and lower legs. Another style called the Pose Method features a forefoot-strike running technique using shoes that are light, thin-soled and have no cushioning. Advocates claim it reduces impact on the knees.

Q: Should I keep using my orthotics when wearing minimalist shoes?

A: Orthotics are designed to correct body mechanics or injury problems. "Minimalist runners," notes podiatrist Larry Maurer, "are by definition not going to want to add anything like an orthotic to a shoe. The idea is to get as close to running barefoot as possible." However, Dr. Maurer adds, "Runners interested in using minimalist shoes to reduce (shoe) weight may use an orthotic if they feel that the improvement in biomechanics offsets the extra weight of the orthotic."

Q: What about truly barefoot running—with no shoes at all?

A: Between the history, the athletes and the Harvard study, some people believe barefoot (no shoes) is the way to run. Of course, this means running with no protection other than your skin and its calluses. Some run barefoot regularly, some once a week and others just incorporate barefoot drills into their workout.

One problem with true barefoot running is what you might step in or on. The bottoms of your feet are susceptible to cuts, puncture wounds and infections. A track is a good place to try true barefoot running.

Tip: Start gradually. Do it in small doses, just as if you were beginning to run. Muscles in your feet, calves and hamstrings—as well as your plantar fascia and Achilles tendons—are not used to this method. You can injure yourself if you do too much too soon.

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