Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
16 Oct

The Barefoot Backlash: Are the Naysayers Right After All? (Hint: No.)

BarefootingEvery few days, I get emails from readers worried about the growing barefoot backlash. The media has gone from shooting out a positive article or two every couple months about this “crazy, quirky new fad” of barefoot running to spearheading the charge condemning the practice as dangerous and unAmerican. It’s like clockwork; when something becomes too well known and popular to justify glowing, exploratory write-ups that interest readers, you start attacking it, and the readers come flowing back. They see the results of a perfectly reasonable study fall into their newsfeed and the wheels begin to turn. “How can I interpret this research in such a way to maximize ire raised?” The press loves a good backlash, even (especially) if they have to manufacture it.

And so the headlines come in droves. And boy are they scary and ominous.

The scare tactics used in these articles will be familiar:

Quotes from podiatrists and physical therapists who are seeing a “rash of barefoot running-related injuries” in their clinics. I would certainly hope that podiatrists and physical therapists are seeing people with injuries. It’d be pretty strange if people without lower extremity injuries were going in to see the podiatrist just for the heck of it. Besides, how does their anecdotal evidence compare with the empirical evidence that 90% of people training for a marathon (the vast majority of whom are wearing shoes) will get injured?

Construction of strawmen, like this idea that barefoot or minimalist runners are all doing it for the “increased running economy” and “to run faster.” Who says that? People generally switch to barefoot running to avoid (or fix existing) injuries, improve proprioceptive awareness, and increase sensory enjoyment of running. There’s even evidence that running in Vibram Fivefingers (and, presumably, in other minimalist shoes or none at all) results in greater improvements to mood than running in standard shoes. Besides, now that they mention it, there actually is evidence that minimally-shod runners are more economical due to greater amounts of elastic energy storage and release in the lower leg.

References to the lack of elite runners going barefoot. Well, yeah. Going barefoot has never been about maximizing your performance or destroying the opposition. It’s not about emulating what the elite do, because, let’s face it, the elite are sacrificing health for the sake of performance. Shoes allow you to tune out the pain and push yourself past your body’s naturally-endowed limits. That’s fine if you’re getting paid (well) to do it, but if your training is extracurricular, it should be enjoyable and health-promoting.

As is often the case, the blame lies squarely in the laps of the “journalists” salivating over the prospect of a controversial story that will populate the comment section with angry parties from both sides and drum up hits to their article, not the scientists behind the research. They’re generally just trying to figure out what’s going on with the barefoot running thing, and their conclusions are very reasonable and measured. Let’s look at some of the most recent research into barefoot running to see what’s really going on:

Study #1: Economy and rate of carbohydrate oxidation during running with rearfoot and forefoot strike patterns.

What an anti-barefoot article might say about it: Rearfoot striking is more economical than forefoot striking.

What the study actually says: “No differences in Vo2 or %CHO were detected between groups when running with their habitual footstrike pattern.” Habitual forefoot runners and habitual rearfoot runners were equally economical. However, when forefoot runners tried heel-striking and heel-strikers tried forefoot running, the latter group were less economical than the former group. This shouldn’t surprise you. Forefoot running takes practice, especially if you’ve been heel-striking all your life. Most people end up on their tippy toes bouncing up and down rather than smoothly gliding forward on their first try; the up and down motion wastes a ton of forward momentum and is anything but economical.

Study #2: EMG and tibial shock upon the first attempt at barefoot running.

What an anti-barefoot article might say about it: Barefoot running has “detrimental effects on the runner,” increasing strain on the calves and shocking the shins.

What the study actually says: Barefoot style running may be “ultimately less injurious,” but it poses an initially greater shock to the lower extremities that must be accounted for. Habitually shod runners who heel strike should “undertake the process cautiously” before switching to barefoot running.

Study #3: Minimalist shoe injuries: Three case reports

What an anti-barefoot article might say about it: Running in minimalist shoes has been shown to increase injury rates.

What the study actually says: “All three of the runners switched immediately to the minimalist shoes with no transition period. We recommend that any transition to minimalist shoe gear be performed gradually.”

So, is going barefoot totally safe? Do we really have nothing to worry about?

Well, no. I never said we did. No one said that. Nothing is inherently safe. It’s all in how you do it.

Barefooting is not a panacea. It doesn’t make you invulnerable to running injuries; it makes you more sensitive to their approach.

I’m not sure we’re even meant to run as much as some people like to do, whether barefoot or shod. As humans, we can distance run. As humans, we did distance run. But Grok wasn’t training for marathons. He wasn’t logging miles for the hell of it. The distance run evolved as a necessity, as a way to procure food: the persistence hunt. It was an intermittent event, an acute dose of endurance activity, not a chronic one repeated ad infinitum. Because of that, there’s a threshold – and it’s different for everyone – after which you’re going to incur injuries if you keep running. Being barefoot offers a good barometer for that threshold. When we’ve had too much barefoot running, we generally feel it in our feet. Our soles grow tender, the foot muscles themselves might get overworked and sore, and the surrounding and supporting musculature and connective tissue start to tire. That’s a feature, not a flaw! Our feet are telling us to lay off them, to take a break, and that if we don’t, we risk serious injury. Shoes sever that connection. They obscure the message and make us think we have more in the tank than we actually do.

You can’t just “go barefoot” and have perfect form. You have to work at it. Barefoot running and even walking are skills that must be learned, whether through expert instruction or careful exploration of one’s own experience.

I used to think that sticking someone in a pair of Vibrams or having them run barefoot on a beach would naturally and necessarily prevent heel striking. This is not always the case. As minimalist running has grown more popular, it’s become increasingly clear that some people are able to maintain their heel striking habits even while minimally shod. Heel striking in minimalist shoes or while barefoot is far more damaging than heel striking in padded shoes. The only advantage I see is that it’s such a jarring experience to slam your bare heel on the ground (seriously, try it: jump up an inch off the ground and land on your bare heels; you’ll feel the shockwaves up through your entire body) that you couldn’t keep it up long enough to do too much damage. Heel striking in padded shoes is tolerable, which allows the damage to accumulate inconspicuously. Similarly, boxers are more likely to develop brain damage than mixed martial artists, probably because the padding on boxing gloves allows fighters to take hundreds of blows to the head in a single bout. MMA fighters wearing smaller gloves with far less padding often end fights with a single blow. They’re actually better off because they take far fewer hits and fights are over far more quickly.

Barefooting is a big change for most people who’ve spent the bulk of their lives walking and running in shoes.

Barefooting feels natural for the majority of people, but just because it feels right doesn’t mean your feet and lower body musculature aren’t atrophied from years or decades of shoes. You have to make the barefoot transition slowly and deliberately or risk some of these injuries mentioned in the articles, especially if you’re planning on barefoot running, which places a considerably greater load on your body than walking.

Like the recent flurry of articles criticizing ancestral health and Primal living ended up lecturing us on things we’d already hashed out in the community years ago, much of the barefoot backlash involves breathless “experts” uncovering what we’ve already known for a long time.

What about you, folks? Have you experienced a barefoot backlash? If you’ve ever tried barefooting or wearing minimalist footwear, how did it work out for you? Stick with it?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Baby steps…

    Groktimus Primal wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • I’ve been wearing moccasins for a couple of years… 8 hours of standing shifts on concrete floors…and recently a 7 mile hike followed by another two days later on quite rocky terrain in the Black Hills wearing them. My feet and legs have never been better! In fact, my arches seem to have returned, because my shoe size went from 8 to 7. Amazing for someone in her 50s!

      Mary wrote on October 16th, 2013
      • Hey there :-) There’s actually one study showing that walking barefoot for an hour or so a day resulted in a shortening of the arch (increased arch) as well as an 4-5% increase in muscle mass of the foot (intrinsic muscles) developing in response. Let me know if you want that info first-hand.

        Tony Ricci wrote on October 16th, 2013
        • Hi Mary – I’ve had a similar experience regaining my arches after barefoot walking and running. Had been prescribed orthotics for many years, now ditched 😉

          Tony would love the reference you mentioned.

          Mike wrote on October 17th, 2013
        • I would really like to have the source of this info, if you can post it for us.

          I’d like to show it to some family members, especially those who thought I was crazy for tossing away my orthotics years ago.Orthotics were actually painful and I think they may have screwed us up more. I’ve noticed my arches return since switching to moccasins/ thin flat shoes of different kinds/ occasionally going barefoot. Unfortunately I live in a big, dirty city (Toronto) and there is smeared dog poo, broken glass, and unidentifiable liquids at different intervals along the sidewalks, so I tend to avoid barefooting it unless I’m in the backyard or someplace that I know is safe. I would like to be barefoot during mild/warm months in the future, though.

          Christina wrote on October 17th, 2013
        • Hi Tony, I am currently conducting research in this area and would love if you could share this and other research with me, because I am unaware of this study. I hope for this research to be published in a journal. Thanks in advance!

          Peter wrote on October 18th, 2013
        • Hi Tony,
          Thanks for the information! Yes, I would like to have that info first-hand. Thanks again. Sorry for the answering delay…I haven’t been back here since last month.

          Mary wrote on November 10th, 2013
    • Yes. You can’t just take off your shoes and begin to run barefoot. It takes time to get the soles of your feet adapted. But remember that barefoot runner, Abebe Bikila, who was a double Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia, most famous for winning a marathon gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics while running barefoot? Of course you don’t. Most of you weren’t even born yet. He was a last minute stand in but couldn’t find any shoes that fit so decided to run barefoot just liked he trained at home.

      Also, the Tarahumara people of Mexico are famous for their barefoot running games in mountainous country that can last for two to three days.

      Baby steps… to slowly build up the thickness of the soles of your feet and to get your feet, ankles, calves, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and bones used to it, just like the babies of our paleo ancestors did.

      D. M. Mitchell wrote on October 16th, 2013
      • Similarly, the Inca were famous for having a barefoot runner relay system that could get messages from one end of the empire to the other in a couple days. It was actually their key to maintaining a large-scale civilization.

        SayMoi wrote on October 16th, 2013
        • if they wore shoes and discovered the wheel they’d still be around…….ya know?

          walt wrote on October 17th, 2013
        • The presence or absence of shoes has nothing to do with losing 50-90% of your population to infectious disease. And the Inca did invent the wheel (wheeled toys), but the terrain was so steep as to render it rather useless. They built lots of stairs. Also, llamas are too small to use beasts of burden, so no large carts or wagons.

          Bill C wrote on October 17th, 2013
      • You can’t just put on running shoes and run in perfect form either. Most people need to correct running form in general by fixing tight hips and muscle imbalances. I would say a lot of people are just one step away from plantar fasciitis as it is.

        Matt wrote on October 17th, 2013
      • Yeah, but don’t forget Bikila wore shoes for the 1964 Olympics, and he was faster.

        Mike wrote on October 17th, 2013
        • Faster doesn’t mean better or healthier. It just means you’re really pushing the envelope, usually at a cost.

          Ken Biddle wrote on October 19th, 2013
    • Olympic runners such as Abebe Bikila, Bruce Tulloh, and Zola Budd participated barefoot.

      Jason wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • I used to wear traditional running shoes, but that was in the day when I thought distance running was a good idea! Now I either train barefoot or with New Balance Minimus (Vibram sole, zero drop, 4mm tread). Running for me now is a weekly sprint session and also once a week chasing my daughter and her friends for an hour when they are horse riding….through rivers, over obstacles on rough terrain. Never had so much fun.

      I have absolutely no stresses or injuries whatsoever, but what a surprise in the first week or two of going barefoot I got a bit of a calf strain….yes, the hamstrings were working differently. I would further add that my balance control, strength and agility are all much improved.

      Out of interest I tried on a pair of traditional running shoes last month and found them dangerous (ankle movement more prevalent), uncomfortable (like wearing high heels!) and down right ridiculous (felt like I had boxing gloves on my feet). Laughed quite a lot….and bought another pair of NB Minimus

      Adrian Keane wrote on October 17th, 2013
    • I have been running in minimalist sneakers (Altra Zero Drop/Vibram Five Fingers) for a couple of years now, and I normally wear my Vibrams everyday. I injured my lower back a long time ago and running is my passion, I love it…if I hadn’t changed my footstrike from heel to forefoot I would not be running today! This year I was able to complete 3 half marathons and an obstacle course race. And it did take a long time to transition from being a heel strike runner/walker to a forefoot strike runner/walker. The impact of landing on my heels, even in top quality running shoes, was detrimental to my lower body! Since changing my strike I have minimal pain in my back. Barefoot or minimalist running may not be for everyone, but neither are the “traditional” sneakers for everyone…if it works for you, great, if not that is ok too!

      Meloniey wrote on October 18th, 2013
      • Yep..über fit friend of mine ended up with severe back disc issues…transitioned to minimalist shoes at the advise of physio. Ran her first marathon as a goal last May…more of an ultra/technical trail runner at heart and able to enjoy that despite prior back issues by change to mid/forefoot gait. I personally have loved my Vibrams especially for technical trail running…nothing beats gripping terrain with my whole foot…the switch resulted in feeling the effort in major muscles like glutes and quads instead of shin pain…I never foist my preference on others but get a lot of “hey….cool shoes”.

        Kelly K wrote on October 18th, 2013
    • I used to run barefoot to my grandfather’s house as a 6 year old, my parents -and grandparents both- used to chastise me about it. After seeing the curious Five Fingers several years ago (my ex-girlfriend criticizing their “stupid” looks) and reading about them in this blog, I decided to buy a pair. I use KMD Sport LS’ for American Handball (I live in NYC) and running/hiking through the NY Botanical Gardens (my apt is on Arthur Ave, The Bronx). There was an instant “muscle memory” when I started being active in them which was very cool. I took it slow as advised, and now “normal” shoes ironically hurt my feet. Try barefoot/minimal. Fun!

      Robert BC wrote on October 18th, 2013
  2. Great article! It inspires me to wear my Vibram Fivefingers more often. :-)

    Stephanie Paris wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • Its kind of like what is preached in MovNat: Yes, we all have the ability to do the things involved in MovNat, but after years (and generations) of not doing them, they need to be relearned. We all have feet capable of running barefoot efficiently, but returning to the proper form takes time- as opposed to if we had been barefoot since infancy instead of learning to walk barefoot and having to relearn to walk in shoes…

      ninjainshadows wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • Before going barefoot, I couldn’t run without pretty bay ankle pain. After taking the time to adapt to it, I can go out and trot around through the woods enjoyably for as long as I want.

      I will say that the only way to really know how you run “barefoot” is to actually go barefoot. I have fivefingers and homemade huaraches, and each progressive step down (vibrams to sandals to naked) makes the previous one feel like nikes. The vibrams let you get away with too much compared with the sandals, and the sandals let you get away with way more than bare feet.

      Graham wrote on October 17th, 2013
    • I have wanted to get Vibrams in the past, but I don’t think they will do well on my feet. My second toes are much longer than my big toes. Plus my little toes are very short. I don’t think they will fit me well and will be uncomfortable on my feet.

      lsh wrote on October 17th, 2013
      • Ish– I would still give them a shot. My feet sound like yours; I have freakishly long ‘second’ toes and my pinky toes are stubby nubs which oddly enough lay almost completely on their sides. I think my Vibram’s are the most comfortable shoes I own & I wear them anywhere I can. On the Vibram website, they explain how to measure your feet; I made sure my measurements included my long second toes and they fit perfectly. Best of luck to you!

        Nina wrote on October 17th, 2013
        • Thank you for your reply. I think I’ll try them.

          lsh wrote on October 18th, 2013
  3. No shoes = no shoe deal = no elite runners.

    Amot wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • That was exactly what I was thinking. Elite runners need sponsors and who other than a shoe company is going to spend big bucks sponsoring a runner.
      On another note, I have run outside (in the grass) barefoot but is it safe (or are there precautions that need to be taken) running barefoot on a treadmill, is this a big no-no or not?

      Tom T. wrote on October 16th, 2013
      • Depending on the treadmill, the belt may become hot during use. Other than that, it’s just like running on pavement, but without any turns. Running barefoot on a treadmill is as safe as being barefoot, running, and using a treadmill at the same time.
        That said, all objections to running barefoot on pavement and to running in a strictly straight line apply to treadmills. Additionally, it seems that tactile stimulation promotes thickening of the skin on your soles, while (obviously) friction will wear them down. A treadmill will be even less stimulating (read: interesting in texture and topography) than pavement. I do not recommend high volumes of barefooting on treadmills, but see nothing against their occasional use. It is worth noting that some barefoot runners seek out the hardest ground possible so that they can focus on their form.

        Bill C wrote on October 17th, 2013
      • Beware that the treadmill belt gets hot from friction. I am a barefooter, but I use Vibrams or minimalist shoes when running on a treadmill to prevent burns/blisters..

        Barefoot Damon wrote on October 18th, 2013
    • Remember what Mark wrote in his post though

      “the elite are sacrificing health for the sake of performance. Shoes allow you to tune out the pain and push yourself past your body’s naturally-endowed limits.”

      So with that in mind, its reasonable to assume that performance would be better in shoes due to the padding and associate comfort they provide.

      Debs wrote on October 28th, 2013
  4. I’m glad I go barefoot every chance I get–the bottoms of my feet are like leather, and that’s the way I like it! I wear “Nature’s 5-finger shoes”.

    Wenchypoo wrote on October 16th, 2013
  5. Imagine if the situation was reversed: we’ve been running barefoot or with minimalist shoes for centuries, and shoes were recently invented. Think of the backlash and negative press that shoes, with today’s research capabilities, would receive.

    Personally, barefoot/minimalist shoes make sense intuitively, and that’s enough for me.

    Adam wrote on October 16th, 2013
  6. This is a very timely article for me. Two weeks ago, I got my first stress fracture ever from barefoot running. I switched to fivefingers three years ago, slowly and carefully. I love running barefoot, and I never had any injuries or problems, just fun.

    Then I moved to some place where the main sidewalk surface is brick and within a month of very low milage (<10 miles a week), I had a stress fracture. I had been running for years on asphalt and pavement, but brick seems to be uniquely hard and uneven.

    Most of these articles focus on the transition and neglect to discuss how changes in the running surface can impact even experienced barefoot runners.

    N wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • The main risks from running without shoes are stress fractures and slipping. There’s also a slight risk of picking some infectious agent off the ground.

      But, in all cases, this is something that can be mitigated. I wouldn’t personally recommend running on brick or concrete if you can avoid doing so as you risk the stress fractures. But, the bigger issues is that of traction. Brick and concrete tends to get rather slippery at times and VFFs and or no wearing anything greatly increases your stopping distance.

      hedwards wrote on October 16th, 2013
      • I would never risk running with my VFF’s on concrete, brick, etc. Grok never saw/felt those surfaces. Stick with pre-industrial surfaces and start slowly. Just the thought of running on concrete makes my skin crawl and feet ache.

        Nocona wrote on October 16th, 2013
        • If you run barefoot, not in vibrams, but barefoot, then you might think otherwise about concrete. Concrete, especially relatively new concrete, is the easiest surface to run on barefoot. “Natural surfaces” with their hidden rocks, gravel and thorns are much more challenging. (More fun, too, of course, but that’s a separate issue.)

          More importantly, if you are experiencing pain from the impact of running in minimalist shoes, you could benefit from taking your shoes off and running a short distance on a a hard surface. Barefoot on smooth concrete is the easiest place to give yourself the feedback to adjust your form, and learn to absorb the impact with your feet, ankles and knees.

          Running on soft surfaces is similar to wearing running shoes. The soft surface masks the impact and makes it harder to adjust your form to a barefoot style. Just make sure you don’t over do it.

          skinny wrote on October 16th, 2013
      • Re: traction
        As a barefooter for over three years, I beg to differ. Fingerprints improve grip, and we also have them on our palms, toes, and the soles of our feet. I have often seen shod people slip where I am confident. I have seen people in shoes skate 10 feet on snowy pavement where I manage a couple of inches. Moreover, I KNOW exactly how slippery the ground is and adjust my footstrike accordingly if needed.
        Cleats/spikes aside, the situation have found that shoes would reduce my stopping distance is when the friction of stopping faster would be painful. (Significant risk of) lacerations = bad.

        Bill C wrote on October 17th, 2013
        • I run on paved surfaces in my vibrams- concrete, pavement, tarmac etc.
          I started out on the treadmill, until I got the feel of them, and was reasonably confident I wasn’t heel striking too much; and I walked outside in them.
          My first few runs I kept quite short (I’m not a long distance runner anyway- my normal runs are about 3-6 miles with my dog) doing only a mile or 2 at first.
          My natural gait seems to be more or less midfoot striking; when I start out in the Vibrams I’m much more on the forefoot without really having to think about it, but I do find as i get tired I strike further back, and this kind of lets me know I’ve had enough.
          I agree with Skinny- the paved surfaces are smooth, with no loose small stones, and as such are quite comfortable for me.

          jade wrote on October 19th, 2013
  7. To each there own. It really depends on what you are trying to get out of it. I run to be faster than I was yesterday. So I wear shoes, as it allows ME to accomplish that goal. I do get out of my shoes whenever possible, as I know a strong foot is a good foot. The problem with both sides, is that they care too damn much about being right, not what’s best for any one person.

    AJ wrote on October 16th, 2013
  8. I really wish steel toe work boots would get in on the minimalist train. The wedge boots are close but there just isn’t anything really good out there for us in the steel/composite toe industry.

    Sam wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • Workboots & safety shoes need huge improvement. I found 1 pair that had a wide enough toe – but the sole was1.5″ thick, and the heel almost 3″ – knee pain in short order. I was walking on turf, cutting grass.

      I think part of the problem is manufacturers try to hide what they are. Instead of building a boot around the proper size toe box, they fit an undersized box into a boot that might have been wide enough. I have straight toes, not the mangled deformed twisted things I used to see in the ads for a certain well known running & basketball shoe company.

      Bruce wrote on October 16th, 2013
      • The heel lift alone has repercussions for the knees, ankle mobility and even upright posture. Here’s a cheesy pseudo-study (class project) measuring the changes that stretching the calves x 3 minutes had on pre/post squat angles (measured dorsiflexion, knee and hip flexion) as well as a one or two degree change in the hip flexion. People stood slightly straighter after the stretch. Firefighters who wear high-heeled fire boots all day long are almost guaranteed to have knee and back problems.

        Tony Ricci wrote on October 16th, 2013
      • My partner works as a courier and he’s required to wear steel cap boots for the first part of his day in the warehouse, then he changes into runners he takes with him out on his run. He recently found steel cap Volleys – I know, I laughed, I thought he was kidding but they’re real! Not a patch on barefoot shoes, but they’re “legal” in the warehouse because they have toe protection, but he can comfortably run about in them all day. It’s the stiffness of the sole in boots which really does the damage.

        Georgie wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • Indeed, but the best you’re going to do there, is essentially zero drop platform boots, as they are designed for protection rather than the health of the feet.

      hedwards wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • Feel your pain! There are few things less primal than having to wear steel toe boots every day.

      Christin wrote on October 16th, 2013
  9. I have compromised, I wear shoes but I do not wear gloves.

    Steve62 wrote on October 16th, 2013
  10. I’ve recently had the pleasure of training a handful of professional runners. It’s amazing how many, even pros have poor posture and major muscle imbalances. Running long distances like that is begging for an injury regardless of the shoe/barefoot.

    I get it though if you love your sport (I was getting punched in the head yesterday boxing, a lot of fun but of course terrible for you). It’s just sad seeing people still trying to slave away running, injuring themselves in the name of weightless.

    For me wearing minimalis shoes is the only way for me. Granted I’m of cranking out marathons. I used to experience throbbing heals by the end of each day. Switching to minimalist shoes cued me Into the fact that my posture was “heavy” towards my heals. Minimilist shoes give me instant feedback to carry the weight across my entire foot. Heal pain gone!

    Luke wrote on October 16th, 2013
  11. I used mine for reffing soccer and found incredible improvement. No more shin splints, pulled hamstrings or knotted up quads. Tired muscles, but never sore. I still can hardly believe the difference. For reffing specifically, i also had better wet and mud traction and no more 5lb shoes from being waterlogged. Then I wore them out and can’t find the kso treksports for a good price.

    Joshua wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • I am also a soccer referee, and I train in Vibram’s and NB Minimus. However, I stick with turf shoes when I’m reffing – I think they look more professional, but that’s just a personal opinion.

      John wrote on October 18th, 2013
  12. Very timely indeed. I’m not a runner, nor do I aspire to be one, but I do like walking, preferably without pain. A lifetime of big, tight calf muscles have now resulted in Achilles tendinitis / back of the heel bone spur. Custom orthotics from the podiatrist have killed my hip / lower back and I’ve now stumbled into the barefoot thing (which I’ve always hated shoes and walk barefoot all the time at home – inside).

    There is a ton of info on running barefoot but not walking and there are so few acceptable women’s dress shoes that fall into the minimalist category – so my struggles continue somewhat. I did get one doc to actually agree walking barefoot helps strengthen foot muscles, but quickly said for my condition I must wear shoes and orthotics (which shorten up the Achilles even more to alleviate pain) I’m so glad I know better now.

    Susan wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • Susan,
      I started having the exact same issue two years ago with the Achilles tendinitis. I ordered the expensive orthotics, do stretches every morning, slept with splints, and even tried rub-in prescription steroids, all to no avail. They can’t operate because of the back-of-the-heel location, so I’m at a loss. I try to go barefoot as much as possible, but the podiatrist said I should always be wearing something for support. I’m at a loss.
      My pain is the worst in the morning when getting out of bed and after sitting for extended periods of time.

      Please let me know if you find anything else out that works.

      Brian wrote on October 16th, 2013
      • Brian, I’m sorry you are going thru this but you are definitely not alone. I would avoid surgery if at all possible. From what I understand, the recovery period is horrifically long and the odds are largely against it really helping in the long run.

        Google “the sock doc” a doctor in North Carolina — has a great website. I’ve only just discovered it and skimmed the surface. I bought “the stick” to use on my calf muscles (the main culprit for the Achilles issues) after seeing a couple of his videos and it has been wonderful so far (of relieving the calf tightness). I actually use the stick first thing in the morning on my calves before I get out of bed. The amount of relief is amazing. Highly recommend it.

        The sock doc is also a big advocate AGAINST static stretching and is a huge supporter of the barefoot / paleo lifestyle. Definitely worth looking into. I’m just at the start of this journey too but I don’t want my feet to get worse. I’m disappointed (though I guess I should not be surprised) CW seems to have let us down again in this area too.

        Susan wrote on October 16th, 2013
        • Susan,
          Thanks for the soc doc info. I’m perusing his site now. I had the stick but gave it away as it ripped out my leg hair like crazy. Ouch.
          I think I’ll buy either a rolling pin or make one out of a wooden dowel and some hard foam.
          Thanks again for all of the great info and best of luck to you.

          Brian wrote on October 16th, 2013
        • Brian, Susan –

          Locate a registered massage therapist near you. I know it is not a licensed medical profession in the US like it is in Canada, but do a bit of homework and ask about their credentials – any decent massage therapist can help resolve your achilles tendonitis, definitely no surgery needed.

          Merritt wrote on October 19th, 2013
      • Go to and find a practitioner in your area that has taken the master level foot class or matrx class. It’s all based on science of biomechanics and neurophysiology. I haven’t found anything in regards to the feet that comes close to MAT muscle activation techniques.

        Darren wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • Susan,

      I had very painful achilles tendonitis for a couple years. It seemed to only get progressively worse–until it hurt so much that it would wake me up at night, and I could not position myself to relieve the pain, plus I had a noticeable and unsightly limp during the day.

      I don’t know what your situation is–but I gave up ibuprofen my dr. had ordered (was taking 600 mg 3/day for about three months) AND went gluten free (for other reasons). Within three days my pain unexpectedly and drastically diminished (on a scale of 1-10 from about an 8 to a 3).

      I can’t say for sure if it was the gluten or the ibuprofen that was exacerbating the inflammation. Probably both contributed to leaky gut/inflammation.

      It’s been two years, tendon isn’t healed, but much, much better.

      LindaLu wrote on October 16th, 2013
      • I love this site and everyone is so helpful! Thanks Linda and Darren. Alas, I’ve been gluten free for a few years now (very strict for the first 2 years, now an occasional cheat at the holidays) and apparently I don’t live in a state with the MAT practitioners. (And Brian didn’t think about the leg hair issue — being a girl that isn’t an issue for me using the stick!)

        My immediate plan is to ditch the orthotics and get a pair of the barefoot shoes (just ordered some Lems!). Use the internet, sites like this one and the soc doc, to learn all I can along with reading a new book I just got “Barefoot Walking” by Michael Sandler. I’ll start slowly as I’ve seen going from one extreme to the other is generally a recipe for failure. I’m hoping to piece it all together and get some relief. It is relatively early on for me so if I can even prevent it from getting worse, that will be a success.

        Susan wrote on October 16th, 2013
  13. I have ignored all the nay-sayers and continue to run AND walk on the beach with my Skele-toes. The only reason I do not go totally “foot-naked” is due to potential glass and often tar globules that are on the beach. I ALWAYS got shin splints and a sore knee when I ran with shoes, thought that was just par for the course, but I was wrong. I have NO pain whatsoever when I ditch the shoes. BTW, I’m not a young sprinter, I’m 51, overweight, and trying to get back into shape, so you don’t have to be an athlete to appreciate the value and benefits of ditching the running shoes.

    Bee Bee wrote on October 16th, 2013
  14. The Golden Age of US distance running – the 70s to early 80s – was dominated by guys who began (there were all flats before Bowerman began putting padded heels in them), if not finished their dominance, in minimalist shoes.

    spatz wrote on October 16th, 2013
  15. I got my first pair of Vibrams about 3 years ago, but I’m not a runner. I wore them at first around town on short walks (15-60 minutes), but soon found that I preferred to go completely barefoot. I walked the dog every day for an hour or so without shoes, and over the next year my feet became pretty well adapted to being barefoot

    I have never suffered any injuries as a result of going barefoot/minimalist, in fact, my chronic ankle and knee problems have begun to disappear. A watershed moment for me was a wiffleball game on a dirt/gravel infield. I had been barefoot for a decent amount of time, but was scared to go on the rough/abrasive surface of the dirt infield. I wore my New Balance 992s, my former go-to shoes for athletic comfort. Upon my first turn around first base, I felt like I was going to roll my ankle badly with the large, cushiony soles of the running shoes. I immediately took them off for the rest of the game, and the dirt didn’t bother me a bit.

    I have since gone on multiple backpacking trips with heavy packs, through difficult terrain (and/or snow!) wearing Vibrams with no trouble. I generally reserve the Vibrams for serious off-road terrain, and just go barefoot the rest of the time. I also bought a pair of Vivo Barefoot RAs for school and work, where I have to wear normal looking shoes. I still need some kind of shoe with a durable upper for my anatomy lab and hospital rotations, but I’m never going back to normal shoes again! I see the problems my Dad has with his ankles and knees at age 60, and I figure I might have dodged a bullet just in time (I’m only 30). Everyone always said that I needed orthotics for my flat feet, but barefoot has been the key so far.

    Eric wrote on October 16th, 2013
  16. I’ve been in EVO II and MR10s as part time shoes for the last couple years but my PT wants me to use Newton Isaacs because of my weight and that I’m ramping up for a charity marathon. My first thought on reading this was to wonder what kind of relationship %fat had to injuries. Especially for newbies…

    Darryl wrote on October 16th, 2013
  17. Thanks for doing the heavy lifting for us. I switched to Vibrams this spring and wear them for all of my daily tasks. I have had far fewer ankle problems and less strain on my tendons. As a housewife and mother of small children I spend my days on my feet and I’ve noticed how much less tired I am. Most notable is lack of lactic acid build-up in my feet, something I used to think was normal when spending long hours on my feet.

    What I haven’t been doing is a lot of running, but as I’m trying to get all of us moving more, this should help to prevent injuries whether I’m sprinting or walking.

    Laura the Ringmistress wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • Hmmm. Interesting about the lactic acid build-up. I just realized I don’t get foot cramps anymore since switching to VFF’s.

      Nocona wrote on October 16th, 2013
  18. “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”


    J wrote on October 16th, 2013
  19. Happy to see you tackling this subject, Mark. I’ve been helping folks transition from shoe to no shoe (or minimalist fw) for 4+ years and couldn’t agree more with your post.

    Specifically, as you’ve mentioned above, I believe it all starts with walking. I like to say, “walk intentionally” and go from there. That creates a foundation for anyone to successfully and safely transition away from our tech-driven shoe-style!

    Serious props for your work.

    C Scott wrote on October 16th, 2013
  20. “unAmerican”, indeed! Prejudice against bare feet seems to be strongest in the US, but is also pretty bad in Canada these days, and is spreading to the UK. An older barefooter tells the tale of how all the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” signs went up during the Vietnam war as a way of getting at war protesters without openly challenging their freedom of speech. It has been so long now that people have forgotten that once no one really cared if you wore shoes or not (though barefoot has never been dress for success).

    I don’t run barefoot, because I’ve been sick (apartment mold) and haven’t had the energy, but I’ve been barefoot full time for more than four years now, and the ignorance still appalls me. Hopefully barefoot will become dress for success for the fitness-minded.

    Anemone wrote on October 16th, 2013
  21. It’s been nearly four years for me, since I switched to minimalist shoes for all my footwear needs — not just for running, but also casual, walking/hiking, and I even found minimalist combat boots, which is more of a fashion thing for me, since I’m no longer in the military.

    I can’t imagine going back to “normal” footwear. Even intermediate crossover shoes like the Nike Free feel like heavily-padded and awkward stilts, or like wearing a special heavy cast or something. I do tend to stick to New Balance Minimus for lifting or running on roads, since they have a slight lift and feel better equipped to handle the harder surfaces. But I prefer FiveFingers for natural surfaces or climbing.

    I also take Mark’s advice and avoid chronic cardio. Most of my road time is spent walking, with occasional sprints or runs just to mix things up.

    George wrote on October 16th, 2013
  22. While I don’t run barefooted (or shod, for that matter), I enjoyed being in Germany last year and walking barefooted quite a bit, including up and down some marble stairs and across the cobblestone streets to my aunt’s car. The amount of “your feet aren’t meant to…” comments I got was very interesting, anything from “it’s too cold to walk barefooted” to “you need shows because the street isn’t soft enough”…

    I have over the past 3 years worked from needing to wear heavily supported shoes to now having issues finding a winter shoe that will keep my feet warm while not hurting them when walking the dog…and I love the fact that my feet generally don’t hurt unless I have just overexerted them.


    Kerstin wrote on October 16th, 2013
  23. I had a rough start trying to transition from heel striker to Skora Form (lots of recommendations) minimalist running shoes. Multiple calf and foot injuries. I thought I started slowly enough only running a couple miles a day, but no luck. Took a few weeks off and then tried again with New Balance Minimus which have a slight drop. Started a mile at time and worked up. Not sure if it is the shoes (much more comfortable) or the even slower start but loving minimalist running now. No knee or back pain anymore either. Mark nails it, “You have to make the barefoot transition slowly and deliberately or risk some of these injuries mentioned in the articles”….regardless of how good a shape you are in. I personally underestimated this and I’m sure is the primary cause of injuries for others. In 6-12 months I’ll give 5 finger a try…….

    BTW there are some great minimalist golf shoes out there! I walk 18 at least once a week in TRUE links golf shoes. Feet have never been more comfortable walking a golf course……

    Scott wrote on October 16th, 2013
  24. Barefoot running, bad for you? Who would say such a thing and try to prove it? Maybe a multibillion dollar shoe company like Nike, who wants you to spend money on shoes. I’m not saying it was nike that is preaching against barefoot running, but I’m sure it had to do with some one in the shoe business.

    Corey Hammond wrote on October 16th, 2013
  25. I switched to minimalist shoes (Merrell Barefoot Trail and New Balance Minimus) a couple of years ago. I ramped up my trail running slowly, and I felt pretty good after a couple of months. 3-8 mi, 3-5x a week was common for me.

    Then last year, I ran the Disneyland Half Marathon—on asphalt—and I ended up with a stress fracture in one of my feet. Of course, that was just dumb on my part. I didn’t train on asphalt, and I think it’s terrible to run on, but I was supporting a good cause. 😉 My podiatrist said she sees more age-40-plus dudes with barefoot-related injuries than they used to. (That makes sense, given that more of us are trying out minimalist footwear.) She said that, while our soft tissue adapts to this change in activity fairly quickly, our bones may need more time, especially for the 40+ crowd. She also said that going more than eight or 10 miles in minimalist footwear probably isn’t great for me. And that fits with my activity plan, except for the occasional Tough Mudder.

    I now stick with natural surfaces and that three-to-eight-mile distance, and my body is all the happier for it.

    Eric Ullman wrote on October 16th, 2013
  26. Mark:
    I’ve always hated going barefoot. It’s always been a painful experience for me, When you came out in favor of Vibram Five Fingers, it got my attention and I got a pair to try. I’ve found that by wearing them around the house and eventually wearing them everywhere, I’ve been able to stay with them and now they feel great. It’s taken the better part of a year to make the transition. I now have a couple pair and even play golf in a pair with aggressive tread on the bottom.

    Dave Nieder wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • The mistake a lot of people make is going too fast too soon. Walking around the house barefoot is a good first step.

      As for pain, assuming you’ve given yourself the chance to learn to walk correctly, I recommend walking on gravel whenever you can. It hurts at first, but within a week or two of daily walks, you should see that the padding of your feet gets a chance to develop and those pebbles become barely noticeable.

      hedwards wrote on October 16th, 2013
  27. I walked “barefoot” in minimalist shoes for months before (spontaneously) starting to run. In a very real sense, it was learning to walk all over again, and who can run without learning to walk first? Recommended bookd: “Chi Walking” and “Chi Running” for the best advice on both.

    Salam wrote on October 16th, 2013
  28. Another thing to consider, running long distances on hard substances is probably not natural. In nature, flat areas are usually dirt. Hard areas are usually rocky and require more climbing and a slower pace. I do think minimal shoes are often best for everyday walking around, but I am not yet convinced that the natural way is always the best for everyone when doing something that is by its nature unnatural. Air bags aren’t natural either but then again, neither are cars.

    Eva wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • +1

      Trish wrote on October 18th, 2013
  29. I switched to a minimalist shoe about 3 weeks ago. I wore them in increments, first only walking a quarter of my usual route, then more, and more. This week I had a business trip to a big city, where I do a huge amount of walking, a trip I make two or three times a year. For the first time, my feet, back, and legs did not ache by the end of the day. My feet were tired (but not sore) at one point, which told me that it was time to rest for a bit. I love these shoes.
    But on the same issue, I do not run in them. I haven’t really tried yet. But even when I choose to, now that I’m used to them, I will only do short sprints. I’m not a distance runner.
    People can keep their padded, structured running shoes; that’s their prerogative. But I was tired of achy sore feet and of noticing how quickly all that structure and padding broke down anyway, necessitating the need for a new pair of shoes to get the “same level of protection.” No thanks. For me, I like my “barefoot” shoes. Even though they make me look like I enrolled in clown school…

    gardengal wrote on October 16th, 2013
  30. I began running for 23 year and running in Vibrams for about 4 years primarily because of the running partner I had at the time. I did initially make the mistake of not changing my heel-to-toe running form and trying to keep my normal distance the first couple of times. Of course my knees and ankles suffered but once I actually learned the proper technique I haven’t had issues. Prior to the switch I suffered from achilles tendonitis which went away after my ankles got stronger. I also had issues with spraining my right ankle every couple of years.

    I wear my five finger shoes everwhere now except at work and at times during the winter when the weather makes it too cold for my toes. My balance has improved dramatically, my ankles are stronger, and my calves look amazing. Vibrams may not be for everyone but they sure are for me.

    Runningbare wrote on October 16th, 2013
  31. Sorry, but I fall into the naysayer camp. With 35 years of martial arts experience, I can say I have been playing sports in bare feet all my life. Today I suffer from severe plantar fasciitis. This was a direct result of not having support. 10 years from now people will look back on this bare foot trend and shake their heads at how foolish it was.

    Rich wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • Rich, I am sorry about your plantar fasciitis, I have had that also. But to say your 35 years in bare feet caused your plantar fasciitis is a leap, when there are so many confounding factors such as the over-use injuries from the physical abuse of martial arts on parts of the body. It is like saying “there is fat in your arteries, therefore stop eating all fat.”

      MFG wrote on October 16th, 2013
      • In the spirit of brevity I left out many of the details that I’ve shared with the many many many doctors I’ve seen. I can assure you its not a leap.

        Rich wrote on October 16th, 2013
        • Support from a shoe is somewhat of a myth. Being barefoot by itself doesn’t cause the problem. Over use and/or stressing ankles and feet with muscle imbalances and ROM limitations cause and perpetuate the problem. There are obviously plenty of barefooters that don’t have plantar fasciitis, so why did you get it, and they didn’t? It’s not as black and white as shoes or barefoot. There are way more variables.

          Darren wrote on October 16th, 2013
      • Precisely, how many shoe wearers wind up with plantar fasciitis every year? Being shod or unshod isn’t the issue, the issue is failing to properly pay attention to that part of the body and show it some respect. For some people it will need to be stretched, massaged and rested to prevent that outcome.

        hedwards wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • I too have a similar amount of martial arts experience – 28 years of Kung-Fu & Judo & Karate before that. Along side this I have been a middle distance runner. I was told on numerous occasions that my martial arts was the cause of my knee problems, (which has developed into arthritis in my left knee), due to flattening of my feet, and that more arch support was necessary.

      Six months primal & Vibrams/barefoot, my arthritis has improved & I can now run without knee pain. I also noticed recently from wet footprints in the gym changing rooms that I have developed arches in my feet!

      What I have found is that “barefoot” makes me much more aware of my leg position & I have got into the habit of correcting my knee rotation to lift my arches.

      The only time I experience discomfort in my feet or knees now is when I wear normal shoes in work – trying to get into the habit of taking them off at my SUSD workstation!

      Calf muscles – now that’s a different story! You really have to learn to run again with small increases in distance (and not at all in the morning in my case) otherwise muscle tears.

      Last year I limped around the Cardiff Half-Marathon in supportive trainers (sneakers), with pain in both knees – next year my target is to do it without sugar in Vibrams – Will probably be limping around with tears in both calf muscles! Lol

      WelshGrok wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • “severe plantar fasciitis” can also be a result of adrenal fatigue! (Who knew?!) I had bad fasciitis — and once I treated my adrenals (which, granted, took nearly 3 years on physiological doses of hydro-cortisone), my feet no longer hurt. (And I no longer wake up feeling like someone took a bat to my kidneys overnight; and I no longer jolt awake every morning at 3 a.m;, and I am not suffering like someone with a hangover in the morning, having to avoid noise and bright lights…) I blamed my sore morning feet on having taught tai chi on cement floors for years… Nope – all gone!

      Elenor wrote on October 17th, 2013
  32. barefoot running? meh, I prefer barefoot standing around. Or barefoot walking the dogs. And of course I surf and hang out at the beach barefoot, when it’s warm enough. But running? Only if I need to catch the subway or the ferry…

    mrfreddy wrote on October 16th, 2013
  33. I was never much of a runner, but suffered from hip pain since I was a preteen. I gave the five finger a try, thinking that not only would the relax fit help but also because the shoes are so light. I wore them with no problems until I walked around an aquarium with my husband for about 6 hours. Next day, I got out of bed and fell over because my calf muscles gave out all of a sudden. Every step hurt that day but after a couple weeks of “stretching” the muscle, they are my favorite thing to wear. If it took me that long just as a walker (and someone who stands at work) to adjust to five finger, I do understand why runners get turned off of them after only a few tries. It definitely takes patience.

    Kayla wrote on October 16th, 2013
  34. Switched to Vibrams about 4 years ago. Never gone back. Never been injured. Love “barefoot” running! I switch back and forth from the Vibram to the Merrill glove. Run long distances. Ran marathon in Merrills barefoot. Ran several half’s in Vibrams. 57 year old male. Made slow transition to barefoot.

    Randy wrote on October 16th, 2013
  35. You have not mentioned the male vs female adaptation differences, as long as females are more acustomized to high heels walking vs barefoot, and therefore more prone to ankle or foot injury during the transition. Thanks, please forgive my spelling. Luis ( mexico )

    Luis martinez wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • Sort of, wearing high heals, leads to a shortening of the calves, which will cause all sorts of problems.

      Going barefoot will require those women to take a longer approach as they have to give the calves a chance to stretch in addition to the changes to the feet.

      This is a great reason to buy 0 drop shoes. It can serve as a step towards going without. I personally like New Balance Minimus shoes for when I need to wear them, but I know there are others.

      hedwards wrote on October 16th, 2013
  36. I haven’t been in a pair of shoes with a heel in over a year now thanks to this blog. It took time to get used to it and early on I did have a bad bout with plantar fasciitis caused by tripping in a pair of “regular” shoes. (Thanks for the fix, Sock Doc!) Going minimalist helped that to heal and now my feet are stronger and in better shape than ever. I was NEVER a barefoot person, but I regularly go barefoot outside these days. Despite my previously tender feet, I now enjoy walking on different surfaces because of the feedback I get from barefooting or minimalist shoes. No, my minimalist shoes aren’t very pretty but I could care less. My feet don’t hurt at the end of a long day of walking, even on concrete. I appreciate the barefoot stance this blog takes and for the various reasons. I am no runner, but I certainly love my minimalist shoes!

    Rhonda the Red wrote on October 16th, 2013
  37. I have to laugh when I see articles like this. I have been going barefoot for as long as I can remember. When I was in junior high back in the early 60’s I ran barefoot in track. At only 4 ft. 8 I could outrun people twice as tall as me. My teacher tried to get me in the Olympics but at that time they forbade going barefoot so I couldn’t participate. Now when I have to wear shoes I wear western boots since they are the only shoes that fit my extremely high arch.

    Belle wrote on October 16th, 2013
  38. Funny you should post this today, since just the other night I watched a show about the Mexican “running” tribe that as part of their culture run astronomical distances – sometimes upwards of 400+ miles at a time – and they do it either barefoot or with sandals made from old discarded tires.

    Joanna wrote on October 16th, 2013

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