The truth behind barefoot running

Sneakers are so yesterday. Should runners be taking it all off?

Eric Vouga was tired of getting injured running in shoes so he decided to go barefoot. He loved his first run — for the first 15 minutes. “I felt fast and light, gazelle-like, total exhilaration — until my calves started screaming at me,” he says. It took him three months to recover.

Flat “barefoot shoes” with no cushioning, like the Vibram FiveFingers toe-shoes, are everywhere, but this isn’t the first time the trend has emerged. “It resurfaces every 10 to 15 years — although this is the strongest I’ve ever seen it,” says Andrew Allden, a USATF Level I Coaching Educator who has trained Olympic and World Championship runners. And yet, the jury is still out.

The case for barefooting starts with shoes’ thick foam cushioning. Ironically designed as protection, some experts say the foam actually leads to injuries because it messes up a runner’s natural biomechanics by throwing off balance and stability (by blocking feedback from his or her soles) and it increases impact, by allowing a runner to do what he or she would never do in nature: Pound the pavement with a long-stride, straight-legged heel strike.

A seminal study conducted by University of Cape Town in South Africa researcher Timothy Noakes, PhD, in 2004 in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that going barefoot and changing from a harsh heel-strike to a gentler forefoot landing cut impact to knees by as much as 50 percent. That’s because “a barefoot runner automatically protects the heel during barefoot running,” says Noakes.

Harvard University evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, known widely as “The Barefoot Professor,” took Noakes’ findings several steps further in a study he published in the journal Nature in 2010. Using a high-speed camera shooting 500 frames per second, he found that that experienced barefooters hit the ground so smoothly that “they’re like an airplane coming in for a landing; they have no impact at all.”

When asked how this could be possible, Lieberman said it all has to do with angles. “Like a well-trained airplane pilot, a forefoot landing comes in at a shallow angle,” he says. “But a heel strike — made possible by the cushioning in the shoes — comes in a vertical angle. Like a too-steep airplane landing, it jars you.”

Convincing, right? Hang on. “There has yet to be a scientific study conducted directly comparing barefoot and traditional shod running,” says Andrew Allden, “and the percentage of the population that can successfully run barefoot is unknown.”

The transition to barefoot and minimalist-shoe running has a potential dark side: Pain — especially to calves, ankles, Achilles tendons and metatarsals (the chain of bones that terminate in the toes), all of which are unused to the new biomechanics. This is no surprise to researcher Dr. Timothy Noakes, who noticed that some of the runners in his 2003 study developed calf pain. “While the bent knee and forefoot landing of barefoot running decrease the eccentric loading on the knee joint,” he says, “it increases it on the ankle, calves and Achilles.”

Push these underused body parts too hard too fast, and injuries are the result. Going unshod after a lifetime in shoes can be a shock to the system. “Do too much and it’s like a heroine addict going cold turkey,” says Ken Bob Saxton, author of Barefoot Running Step by Step. “It might take weeks for feet to unlearn decades of bad habits and relearn how to act like their natural selves again. It might take months. For some, it might not ever take at all.”

The “bad habits” and “new biomechanics” refer to the pronounced differences between the landing patterns of a bare/minimal-shod foot and a foot wearing a typical running shoe with 1-1/2-inches of cushioning, according to Mark DeJohn, the go-to guy for rehab and gait assessments for pro and elite ultrarunners in Bend, Oregon.

An early fan of natural movement and Vibram FiveFinger toe-shoes, DeJohn began seeing a steady stream of Vibram-wearers in his office. “I started telling runners what they didn’t want to hear: Back off. Do just a little bit at first,” DeJohn says. “But most can’t take it slow — and overload themselves. It’s the classic case of doing too much too fast.”

The bottom line: If you want to transition from a classic running shoe to a slimmer model, start by striding for just a few minutes in your lighter pair and work your way up to your usual mileage gradually. In this case, slow and steady wins the race.

Get started with our beginner's tips for minimalist running and slideshow of the season's best shoes.