A blog by runners. For runners.

Barefoot running: more research still required to determine benefits


To bare or not to bare.

Barefoot running enthusiasts say there are many reasons to ditch your running shoes: better mechanics, improved strength and balance, and a reduced risk for injury.

But opponents of barefoot running have concerns. They say going barefoot actually ups the chance of injury. Running without the protection of a shoe can lead to puncture wounds and lower extremity injuries.

Tread lightly

The American Podiatric Medical Association says most of the benefits of barefoot running are just anecdotal and not based on sound science.

The barefoot running movement is based on how the foot strikes the ground. Barefoot runners usually hit the ground forefoot or mid-foot first — a more natural running style — while runners who run in traditional running shoes land heel first. Some experts say when you run forefoot or mid-foot first, you hit the ground with a lesser force, which lowers the risk of injury. Not only that, but landing near the ball of your foot also requires less energy and oxygen, meaning you can possibly run faster and further.

It sounds good in theory, but scientists have actually found the opposite to be true.

Studies published earlier this spring show that:

  • Heel-striking is a more economical running form. Heel-strikers use less oxygen at the same pace when compared to forefoot strikers.
  • Heel-strikers burned fewer carbohydrates. This is important because “hitting the wall” occurs when you deplete your carbohydrate stores, meaning that people who run heel-first may take longer to hit the wall.
  • Most runners don’t make any significant gains when they switch to barefoot running or minimalist footwear.

The bottom line isn’t that going barefoot is bad. Rather, experts say, it just means running mechanics are complicated and more research is needed. What works for one runner won’t always work for another.

For some runners, barefoot is best. But other runners do better in traditional or minimalist running shoes. 

Minimalist shoes

If you’re interested in going barefoot but not ready to ditch your shoes, minimalist shoes may be for you. Minimalist shoes are a middle ground between conventional, cushioned running shoes and running barefoot. Minimalist shoes don’t offer as much cushioning, stability, and support as traditional running shoes and weigh less.

Minimalist shoe manufacturers stress a slow transition when using the shoes. For example, it may be recommended to only wear the shoes for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, once a week at first. Following these guidelines can lower your risk of injury.

However, there is also some controversy surrounding minimalist shoes.

Some brands and styles offer more support than others. A recent study found switching from traditional running shoes to Vibram FiveFingers — one of the most popular minimalist shoes on the market — ups the risk of foot injuries even when runners followed the manufacturer’s gradual transition plan. Other studies have found similar data. Of runners who have tried out minimalist shoes, nearly 1/3 said they suffered injuries as a result of the new shoes.

Running barefoot: yay or nay? How do you feel about minimalist shoes? I’ve never run barefoot and I’m one of those people who ended up injured after wearing minimalist shoes. I’ll never cheat on my Brooks Adrenalines again!

Written by Jen Matz.