The Bare Truth About Barefoot Running

Austin Marathon 2104 Cropped
Austin Marathon / Half-Marathon February 2014

Vibram, maker of FiveFingers minimalist shoes, recently settled a lawsuit filed by a woman who accused the company of false advertising. As a result of the lawsuit, Vibram has to pay out $3.75 million dollars in refunds to people who purchased Vibrams from March 2009 until the date of the first summary settlement notice. Leaving aside the issue of frivolous lawsuits and personal responsibility in the use of any purchased product, I want to discuss the way news of this lawsuit relates to barefoot running in general. Reading the various articles about the lawsuit in various sources, I became annoyed at the general, blanket statements against barefoot running that appear in numerous articles, but especially at the negative statements that appear in the comment sections following the articles. I don’t have the time to comment on every article I read, although I have a deep desire to respond to the incorrect and uninformed statements that have appeared in relation to news stories about the Vibram lawsuit. Too often those people who support barefoot running as a viable alternative to wearing footwear fail to fully address the criticism in the their responses to the criticism. I decided that a writing a blanket response in one place, my blog, would be the best way to address all the offending statements and information regarding barefoot running.

I began running distances in 2005, when I trained for and ran my first half-marathon. Up to that point, I ran only three miles at a time and only a couple times a week on a track. After I finished my first half-marathon (February 2005, the Free Scale Austin Marathon / Half-Marathon), I fell in love with distance running. I decided to train for a full marathon at that point and after running a couple more half marathons in 2005, I ran the full Free Scale Austin Marathon / Half-Marathon in February 2006. When I began running distances, I loved everything about running – except wearing shoes. Until I started running, I rarely, if ever, wore close-toed shoes. I wear flip-flops and flat sandals everywhere I go, even to work and to Mass. I go barefoot when I’m not going out anywhere; in short, I never have my feet cushioned or enclosed in any way. Wearing running shoes was torture for me. For two years I tried different sizes, different models, and different brands. No shoe ever felt comfortable on my feet. By the end of longer runs my toes would feel claustrophobic. Nothing else would bother me nearly as much as my toes, screaming to be set free. Finally, I decided I just needed to run barefoot. My feet completely rebelled against being  imprisoned in shoes. I looked into barefoot running online (worrying a tad bit, as a newer runner, about the mantra put forth by shoe companies and veteran runners that poorly shod runners suffer terrible injury) and found an entire culture of barefoot runners (Barefoot Ted, Barefoot Bob, etc). They run distances just fine, without injury, so one day in the spring of 2007 I decided to just leave behind my shoes and I did: just like that! No shoes, and I’ve not worn a pair of shoes since then (well, I wore a pair of close-toed heels to my son’s wedding – which was pure torture for several hours – but my family told me I had to do it).

Here I must make some disclaimers. First disclaimer: I do not propose, and will never propose, that all runners should give up their preferred

Image from Competitor.com
Image from Competitor.com

manner of running. Running is an individual sport. What works for one runner is often disastrous for another runner. Like all other aspects of the sport of running, choice of footwear is an extremely personal decision that needs to be based upon the individual runner’s self-knowledge and experience. Some runners prefer one brand of shoe, though they may try various models of that one brand. Some runners, in the search for the perfect shoe, change shoe brands and models often. Some runners prefer minimal support; some runners prefer maximum support. Some runners prefer non-conventional footwear (such as Vibrams or huaraches), and some (the category of runner to which I belong) prefer no footwear at all. People stop me just about every time I run and ask about barefoot running. Many of them are runners who are considering switching to minimalist or barefoot running. I offer this response to every single person who asks me about barefoot running: if a runner is comfortable in conventional shoes, if he’s generally injury-free, if he’s happy with the pace he can achieve when he races, if he’s satisfied with all aspects of his running life and performance, then he probably needs to stick with what’s working. In other words, if the only reason a runner wants to switch to barefoot is that he heard it’s a better way to run, he should stay status quo and leave barefoot running for those runners who are truly physically uncomfortable with conventional footwear on their feet, or who have problems with running that they’ve been otherwise unable to fix by changing shoe style, shoe brand, training habits, running form, etc. Barefoot running is not for every runner, and it shouldn’t be prescribed as THE best way to run for every runner.

Second disclaimer: runners who decide to transition from shoe to minimalist or barefoot running MUST do so slowly, very carefully, following the guidelines of barefoot running experts such as Dr. Leiberman of Harvard. The reason I was able to go sans shoe cold turkey is that my feet had forty-six years of barefoot and minimalist experience. Moreover, at the time I switched to barefoot running, I had just quit Taekwondo. I had been going to Taekwondo three days a week for four years, during which time I had built up my feet and calf muscles. Taekwondo is a barefoot sport. I spent every Taekwondo session bouncing on bare feet, kicking with bare feet, and breaking boards with bare feet. While standing in line during drills, waiting for my turn to kick or do forms, I had to bounce on the balls of my feet: Master Olney required we do this. No one dare be caught standing still in line. As a result of all this barefoot activity in Taekwondo, my feet and calf muscles were fully developed. They had not been weakened by having been cushioned in shoes; they had been strengthened through the work out I gave them doing Taekwondo. Most people wear shoes with some sort of support most of the time; therefore, those who wish to transition to minimalist or barefoot running must so do very slowly and very carefully to avoid injuring muscles they’ve not developed through habitual use.

Third disclaimer: Although I run completely without shoes when I run on pavement (Luna huaraches when I run on trails), I do own a pair of

Wild Hare 50 m, 50k, 25k November 2013
Wild Hare 50 m, 50k, 25k November 2013

Vibrams. I wear them only when I go to the gym, and then only because the gym has a rule that requires people to wear something on their feet while they work out. I bought my first pair of Vibrams in March 2008 to wear on our rocky, treacherous Texas trails; however, the design of this shoe restricts toe movement in an unnatural way. My feet hurt when I wore them as a result of this restricted movement, and my toes felt cramped. I switched to huaraches for trailrunning; I find my feet move much more naturally in my Lunas. Just as I consider myself a minimalist runner rather than a barefoot runner when I wear Lunas on trails, I consider people who wear Vibrams when they run to be minimalist, but not barefoot, runners. Barefoot running is just that: running without foot wear. Vibrams may allow runners to mimic barefoot running in some ways, but the shoes simply do not allow one’s feet to behave the way feet do when they are completely unshod.

Foot-covering though they be, Vibrams do allow the foot to behave more naturally than conventional shoes. People who wear them attest to the shoe’s efficacy. Many people who may have had to give up running had they not switched to Vibrams have related their success stories and their support for the Vibram company since the news of Vibram’s settlement was released. Among large number of anecdotal comments by people who overwhelmingly endorse the FiveFinger as a shoe that does what the Vibram company claims it does are comments that criticize barefoot / minimalist running. These disparaging comments are the reason I decided to write a post about barefoot running. I want to address the false assumptions behind the negative attitude some people have toward the idea of running in anything but conventional shoes.

The first issue I will address is the assumption that barefoot running is dangerous to the feet and hard on  one’s joints, points summarized in the official statement of the American Podiatric Association following Vibram’s settlement:

While anecdotal evidence and testimonials proliferate on the Internet and in the media about the possible health
benefits of barefoot running, research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long-term effects of this practice.

Barefoot running has been touted as improving strength and balance, while promoting a more natural running style. However, risks of barefoot running include a lack of protection, which may lead to injuries such as puncture wounds, and increased stress on the lower extremities.

Such criticism is reiterated in reader comments following articles concerning Vibram’s settlement. I’ve chosen the two comments below, that appeared one after the other in commentary following an article in the Huffington Post, as representative of the common false assumptions among people who have never tried barefoot running.

Ron: Ive been an avid runner for over 4 decades….NEVER believed any of the crap about the “shoe”….running is high
impact, traumatic to unprotected feet….it is a joke to think anyone would have believed claims, when they obviously weren’t true to anyone who has done any amount of running…

Dana: Yeah, I have to agree. It’s not four decades, but I’m a veteran of 16 marathons and hundred-mile weeks, and as a mild supinator I’m probably the best candidate for those shoes, and even I can’t wear them. Anyone who puts in real mileage risks injury with those shoes.

Image from xeroshoes.com
Image from xeroshoes.com

I’ll address the podiatrists’ statement first. Risks of injury exist as much for shod runners as for unshod. Shod runners get blisters and lose toe nails. Shod runners also get shin splints, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, and muscle tears. They often experience knee pain, IT band pain, hip flexor pain, as well as pain in other assorted muscles related to running. Barefoot runners sometimes suffer the same types of pain and injuries. Most, though not all, runners will occasionally have pain and injuries, regardless of what they do or do not wear on their feet. As far as the threat of foot punctures and other such type injuries to barefoot runners, I’ve been running seven years barefoot on pavement and asphalt, and I have never once punctured or otherwise injured my foot. People who run barefoot HAVE to watch where we’re going. I can run gingerly through shattered glass without so much as a scratch, if I can’t avoid running through it at all. I learn how to use my feet carefully. They are an extension of myself and my consciousness when I run. I feel the ground when I run. My entire body is involved with my run when I run. For this reason, I am aware of the dangers in my path and I am able to avoid them. Barefoot runners have to be more engaged and attentive when they run than those runners whose feet are encased and encushioned in shoes.

Like the mistaken assumptions that appear in the statement by the podiatrist association, common false assumptions about barefoot running are contained in the comments by Ron and Dana above. In the nine years I’ve been running, I’ve 18 marathons (and countless half-marathons, 10ks and 5ks), the last 16 of which I ran barefoot. Naked feet. No running in minimalist shoes, nothing. Just my gloriously bare naked feet. I never once had an injury or foot problem after running a marathon. Although I do not run 100 mile weeks, I did run 50 – 60 miles weeks until I formed my business last fall. Since that time, finding the time to put in 50-60 miles a week has been difficult but I average 35 miles a week. I can’t say what by what standard veteran runners judge “real mileage” in training, but I use Strava and every month I finish in the top ten percent of the runners who take the Strava challenge to run as many miles as they can every month. The number of runners who take the challenge is five digits always (in May, for example, I finished 1601/34535), so if I go by Strava data alone (or at least those who decide to take the challenge every month), I do a pretty good bit of weekly running for a runner – the majority of it barefoot, the rest in huaraches.

In the nine years I’ve been running, and the seven I’ve been running sans shoes, I’ve experienced no injury from running. Not one. The only two injuries that have ever interfered with my running came about from a fall (tripped on a curb and damaged the cartilage in my right knee) and from a baby-sitting incident (I jumped up off the couch to chase my 2 year old grandson last year, and tore my calf muscle on impact with the ground when I jumped – I landed incorrectly): never a run. Furthermore, I have never once finished a marathon with injuries to my feet, not so much as a blister. All the people with whom I run wear shoes, however, and many – but not all – of these runners experience running injuries from time to time that cause them to reduce their training, or force them to cross-train, while they rehab their injuries. Furthermore, my shod running friends often finish marathons with blisters on their feet – from their shoes and socks. Now, I am not about to claim that barefoot running protects me from injury, or that the shod runners I know who experience injuries do so because they wear shoes. I am going to point out that runners are individuals and our bodies respond differently to the stress of physical activity. To suggest that every single runner who runs barefoot will suffer trauma to her body for lack of protection on her feet, or that every single runner who runs in shoes will suffer trauma to her body for the negative impact shoes have on the body, is simply a false argument: a hasty generalization.

These arguments against barefoot running that appear in relation to the Vibram lawsuit are nothing new. I’ve actually been criticized and preached to by complete strangers since I first started without shoes. Everyone who has vocalized criticism or concern – and I realize that sometimes people actually question my barefoot running out of true concern for my welfare – has incorrect ideas about what footwear does or does not do for our feet. Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run, published about two years after I started running barefoot, has done quite a bit to disabuse people about the necessity of proper footwear to injury-free running. Since the publication of that extremely popular book, the comments I’ve received when I’m out running about barefoot are much more positive. The questions I get from people are as often as not expressing true curiosity (though still as often as not just mean to be snarky as well). Still, as the Internet discussion following the recent Vibram lawsuit shows, some negative attitudes toward barefoot / minimalist running still exist. The negative comments are so misguided and misinformed, and so illogical in many cases, that I became quite frustrated in that I was unable to address the commentary included within articles as well as those that followed the articles. The bare truth about barefoot running is that barefoot running works for some runners, but not for others, just as wearing shoes works for some runners, but not for others. Each runner has to do what is best for herself, without negatively judging runners who make different decisions. As long as some shod runners continue to suffer running related injuries and some barefoot runners do not, we’ll have to accept that to wear shoes or not to wear shoes should be based upon a runner’s individual preference and experience, rather than upon conventional wisdom and opinions of people who have never run barefoot – including doctors and scientists. Whew. Now I feel a sense of relief having gotten my rant out of my system.

Further reading about barefoot running and the Vibram lawsuit:

http://www.drnicksrunningblog.com/my-thoughts-on-the-vibram-fivefingers-lawsuit-and-why-minimalist-shoes-do-not-create-injuries/

http://www.sportsscientists.com/2014/05/vibram-lawsuit-barefoot-running-common-sense/

2 thoughts on “The Bare Truth About Barefoot Running”

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you stopped by! My posts have been sparse, but I made a goal for 2016 to post more often. Good luck with your barefoot training! Going slow is always a good idea. Just moving forward is progress; how quickly one moves forward isn’t as important as the fact that the movement is ongoing : )

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