Barefoot Running 101: What You Really Need to Know

Barefoot running is an idea so initially counterintuitive as to be easily dismissed. That’s unfortunate because it could save your running life.

My Introduction to Barefoot Running

As you may know, I’ve been a runner pretty much my entire life and either run for running’s sake or used it as a training tool for other competitive activities. It’s always been around the core of everything I do. This is the beginning of a journal of my personal journey with barefoot running.  My intention is that it will provide you with some great insights that you can use to become a better and injury free runner. First a definition: barefoot running isn’t necessarily running completely unshod. It can be done in sandals, five finger shoes or other shoes that allow the foot to have it’s natural gait and movement pattern. This means the shoes are flat (no heel), minimally cushioned, the sole not overly stiff and the shoes allow the toes to naturally splay.

My personal interest in barefoot running, as with many runners and athletes, began with an injury. I was out running with my friend the Ukrainian ultra endurance national champion and we had just started to really pick up the pace; We were really pounding the pavement – literally – and then for the first time in my life I felt a sharp stabbing pain in the rear of my foot under my arch. It was so severe, I had to stop running immediately and limp home.

As I worked to heal that nagging injury through trial and error, I found a seemingly unreconcilable fact: My foot felt better when I was barefoot and the pain was worse when I put on a heavily cushioned running shoe. Everything I was experiencing was contrary to what I and the rest of the running community had been taught spanning back to the 1970’s. It went directly against modern running’s best practices.

Even today, the standard first step for a new runner is to find a pair of good, cushioned running shoes. A good pair of running shoes “will keep you injury free” touts Runner’s World magazine. And to go with those shoes and literally built right into them is the “correct” running style which is for the foot to strike heel first, roll forward with a slight supination and push off from the toes.

This was the known best way as practiced by millions of runners and supported by high tech running labs and shoe companies with cool commercials. The only problem was, since the late 1970s when modern running shoes came into being, more runners just like me were getting injured – not less.

The Need for Barefoot Running – Injury Free Running

“The data suggests up to 79 percent of all runners are injured every year,” says Stephen Messier, the director of the J. B. Snow Biomechanics Laboratory at Wake Forest University. “What’s more, those figures have been consistent since the 1970s.”  Likewise, a top NCAA track coach that trains Olympics athletes estimates that over 75% of his runners will sustain an injury within the next four years. Once you start looking, the numbers are really staggering and don’t make sense.

And standard wisdom which prescribes stretching, cross training, running off road and custom orthotics doesn’t offer any relief. I know because following the advice of professionals including working with one of Michael Johnson’s personal trainers, I tried all the above prescriptions without results. Even highly touted – and expensive – custom orthodics did nothing.

Born to Run – Barefoot Running Goes Mainstream

Then, two years ago, there was a break through book that has spurred the entire barefoot running revolution called Born to Run. It is an amazing story about the Tarahumara Indians who live in Copper Canyon Mexico and regularly run 100-mile races into their geriatric years – and do it injury free. Everybody, including me was fascinated to find out their magic secret, the mystical fountain of running youth. The answer turned out to be wickedly simple – go back to doing what we as a species had successfully done for millions of years. That modern running shoes disrupted how the foot of Homo Sapiens was bio mechanically built to work. The idea while elegantly simple, still seemed so counterintuitive to everything I had learned as a runner over the past decades, I wasn’t convinced.

Barefoot Running According to the Super Smart Harvard Guys

Barefoot Running

Heel Strike vs. Forefoot Strike

Following Born to Run, Daniel Lieberman, chairman of Harvard’s human evolutionary biology department and a couple of other Harvard guys published a stunning, ground breaking study in the scientific journal Nature. If you like calculus, you can read the entire thing. Their study essentially said that for millions of years, we‘ve been doing the running thing right and that has only changed in the last forty years. To work on his hypothesis, Lieberman had to find a way to go back in time to when humans didn’t wear shoes and to do that, he went to rural Kenya. There, Lieberman and his colleagues at Harvard, the University of Glasgow, and Moi University looked at the running gaits of three groups: those who had always run barefoot, those who had always worn shoes, and those who had converted to barefoot running from shod running. And they compared those with runners in the US. The researchers found a significant pattern: Most shod runners heel-strike, experiencing a very large collision force every time their foot touches the ground. People who run barefoot, however, tend to land with a springy step towards the middle or front of the foot.

People who don’t wear shoes when they run have an astonishingly different strike, says Daniel E. Lieberman

From Harvard’s Biomechanics of Foot Strikes & Applications to Running Barefoot, Lieberman who is in his 40s and a six time marathoner explains:

We have been investigating the biomechanics of endurance running, comparing habitually barefoot runners with runners who normally run in modern running shoes with built-up heels, stiff soles and arch support. Our research asked how and why humans can and did run comfortably without modern running shoes. We tested and confirmed what many people knew already: that most experienced, habitually barefoot runners tend to avoid landing on the heel and instead land with a forefoot or midfoot strike. The bulk of our published research explores the collisional mechanics of different kinds of foot strikes. We show that most forefoot and some midfoot strikes (shod or barefoot) do not generate the sudden, large impact transients that occur when you heel strike (shod or barefoot). Consequently, runners who forefoot or midfoot strike do not need shoes with elevated cushioned heels to cope with these sudden, high transient forces that occur when you land on the ground. Therefore, barefoot and minimally shod people can run easily on the hardest surfaces in the world without discomfort from landing.

A Very Brief Million Year History of Barefoot Running

Compared to many other mammals, especially four legged ones, we as a species are pretty slow – at least in short bursts. In the 100 meter dash, Olympians are still trying to find a way to beat the physical reality that they are decelerating before the end of 100 meters. Sprinting is the way many apex predators hunt. Chases are typically very brief as the predator knows quickly whether they will be successful or not and energy conservation is paramount. Lions don’t run for long distances nor are they suited to and all you need to do is watch a lion panting in the hot afternoon Africa sun to see this.  More at home, anybody that has ever taken their dog for a jog knows that dogs don’t jog well. So while we humans may not have been fast in an all out sprint on the ancestral plains, out upright bipedal locomotion with a springy step combined with our ability to perspire and cool ourselves meant that we could chase prey down all day long. We were quite literally born to run.

barefoot running

Vibram 5 Finger Running Shoes

The “One Best Way” to Barefoot Run

From the work that Lieberman and his colleagues have done at the lab, it became clear that the problem wasn’t shoes as such but shoes that changed the way that the human foot was designed to bio mechanically work.  What was needed wasn’t just new shoes, but to relearn how to run like our ancestors did. Form was everything.

Enter W.S. George who was a teenage chemists apprentice in England in the late 1800’s that within a matter of a few years held world records in everything from the half mile to 10 miles. What was his secret? The “100-Up.”

The 100-Up is described in a New York Times article entitled The Once and Future Way to Run:

The 100-Up consists of two parts. For the “Minor,” you stand with both feet on the targets and your arms cocked in running position. “Now raise one knee to the height of the hip,” George writes, “bring the foot back and down again to its original position, touching the line lightly with the ball of the foot, and repeat with the other leg.”

Once you can do the Minor, it’s on to the Major: “The body must be balanced on the ball of the foot, the heels being clear of the ground and the head and body being tilted very slightly forward. Now, spring from the toe, bringing the knee to the level of the hip. Repeat with the other leg and continue raising and lowering the legs alternately. This action is exactly that of running.”

And it turns out to be so in practice. As I learn to run barefoot, a technique I’ve found very effective is to do 100-Ups and then roll directly into a run. At times during my run, I stop, repeat the 100-Ups and then begin running again. This is critically important because heel strike running in barefoot shoes is a very bad thing and something a large percentage of new barefoot runners still do.

I’ve admittedly had an advantage moving into barefoot running as a former competitive soccer player and long time wearer of flip flops. Soccer cleats are essentially barefoot shoes albeit with a narrow forefoot and much stiffer sole. Soccer players tend to run in a more agile fashion – more often landing on the forefoot – because this allows for more dextrous movements which are a requirement of the game. And while soccer players sometimes sustain injuries, these are seldom the kind of overuse injuries seen by runners. Given that a midfielder in competitive soccer will routinely run 10-12 miles of combined sprints and jogging in a 90 minute game, this is yet more empirical evidence that barefoot running is safer and less prone to injury. In all the years I played, I never had an injury.

The Future of Barefoot Running – Fad or Fact

Barefoot Running

A Running Shoe from VivoBarefoot

So is barefoot running a fad? Maybe in the United States but it’s too early to say. I talked with the owner of a running store in Denver CO and he said that sales of barefoot running shoes peaked last year and have trailed off significantly this year. He estimates them at 10-12% of his sales this year. I was a little shocked at those numbers expecting them to be much larger. Barefoot running has had unequivocal positive results (but still no published scientific study) and it’s hard to argue with millions of years of successful evolution. It clearly demonstrates how difficult the status quo is to change even when the status quo isn’t right.

In 1980s, Benno Nigg, founder of the University of Calgary’s Human Performance Lab, helped create the gospel of highly cushioned, wedged running shoes that still abounds today.

Today Nigg says  “Initial results were often over interpreted and were partly responsible for a few blunders in sport-shoe construction,” The belief in the need for cushioning and pronation control was, in retrospect, “completely wrong thinking. You don’t need any protection at all except for cold and, like, gravel.” And recent studies have confirmed his thinking. In 2010, The British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that a study of 105 women enrolled in a 13-week half-marathon training program found that every single runner who was given motion-control shoes to control excess foot pronation sustained an injury.

But there is a lot of push back and noise when it comes to the notion of barefoot running and it comes predominantly in two forms:

  • our own inner voice that sees barefoot running as initially counterintuitive given the decades long education we’ve received from running stores to running magazines.
  • a multi billion dollar running shoe industry that needs to sell shoes and to a greater degree, adamantly believes that what it is doing is right.

At a Runner’s World forum at the Boston Marathon in 2010, the then director of the Nike Sports Research Lab openly mocked the country’s leading barefoot runner but things may be changing. Today, Nike’s fastest growing shoe line is their Nike Free series and Olympic prospects at Nike’s elite Oregon Project are being taught the 100-Up technique.

My Barefoot Running Journal

Barefoot Running

A Runner Who Has Never Worn Shoes

A few weeks into my test, here’s what I’ve personally found:

  • no foot pain
  • no knee pain – in fact the running feels noticeably lighter on my joints
  • a vastly improved tactile feel of the ground which I can only describe as great
  • fewer issues with “motion control” – this is TOTALLY counterintuitive. I have less on my feet and my form is better.
  • my upper body position is modifying slightly and I am running in a more upright posture

The only negative I’ve found is some significant calf cramping. After working through this, I realized I was holding my calves tight to soften my heel strike. I’ve relaxed my calves, focusing on a correct forefoot landing and the problem seems to be resolving itself.

As Lieberman says, barefoot running is something to be carefully eased into because it will use your foot and leg muscles differently. I highly recommend starting by purchasing a pair of barefoot shoes and just wearing them around in your everyday activities for a week or two before you start running in them. Then start with very low mileage. I did this and it worked well for me.

In future journals on barefoot running, I am going to get several different types of barefoot shoes so I can compare them and write a review. I’ll look at running, hiking, crossfit and every day use and continue to report my barefoot running experience.

Make sure and check out this video of barefoot running and the 100-Up.


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