Barefoot Running: No Shoes, No Problem

Beekeeper Kirk Anderson has a simple message, lets bees be bees. Let them form their own comb, raise their own queens and generally go about doing what they want to do. In short, work with nature rather than try to control her. “Duh,” one might say, but Kirk’s beekeeping method just so happens to run counter to a hundred years of conventional beekeeping practices and “expert” advice. Kirk calls his method “backwards beekeeping” after Charles Martin Simon’s eloquent essay, “Principles of Beekeeping Backwards.” Simon’s essay is essential reading, in my opinion, even if you have no interest in bees. It gets you thinking about what other things the so-called experts might be wrong about.

How about shoes for instance?

I was addicted to running throughout my 30s until a series of injuries in recent years, arthritis in the knees and plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of connective tissue on the bottom of the foot, effectively ended my happy morning runs. In the case of plantar fasciitis the doctors and physical therapists I consulted all said the same thing, that I should wear shoes with arch supports at all times, even around the house. A routine of stretching, incessant shoe wearing and abstaining from running beat back the pain for a year or so. But then it returned for no good reason.

Time to take those feet “backwards”

All the interventions of conventional beekeepers, the pre-built comb and endless treatments, have produced weak bees. It may seem crazy, but I began to see an analogy to our feet. We ain’t born with shoes on, after all. So why do we think we need to improve on nature’s design? Could it be that shoes, by atrophying our muscles, cause plantar fasciitis? Could the ever more massive cushioning of running shoes cause biomechanical changes that damage knees? For several years I’d been fascinated with barefoot running, but was always too chicken to try it. Two videos, done as part of a research project on barefoot running at Harvard, convinced me.

The first shows a runner in shoes with a graph of the impact forces. When you run in shoes you tend to slam down your heel first. Note the spike in the graph indicating the force of this heel impact::

When you run barefoot you tend to strike with the ball of the foot first instead of the heel, which eliminates that initial impact spike:

Desperate and with nothing to lose, I decided to VERY slowly adjust to not wearing shoes. I gradually wore them less and less around the house. I began to feel a noticeable difference immediately. My feet felt stronger. In the past few weeks I’ve begun to carefully transition to running barefoot. I’m using a program adapted from a book, Run Less, Run Faster:  minus all the advice about shoes: I only run on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, resting on all other days.

Week 1: (run 1 minute walk 2 minutes) x 4
Week 2: (run 2 minutes walk 2 minutes) x 3
Week 3: (run 2 minutes walk 1 minute) x 4
Week 4: (run 3 minutes walk 1 minute) x 4
Week 5: (run 4 minutes walk 2 minutes) x 4 
Week 6: (run 4 minutes walk 1 minute) x 6
Week 7: (run 5 minutes walk 1 minute) x 6  
Week 8 run one mile
Week 9: run 1.5 miles
Week 10: run 2 miles
Week 11: run 2.5 miles
Week 12: run 3.1 miles

While I’m fairly certain I’ll have setbacks, I’m hoping this conservative program will minimize my chances of injury and get me back to running modest distances. So far is seems to be working. I just have to contain my enthusiasm for being free of shoes and keep myself from running too much, too soon. Barefoot running really is liberating. It feels like being a kid again.


Everything we’ve been told is wrong

Dr C Richards, of the University of Newcastle in an article, “Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence based?” discovered that there is not a single peer reviewed study proving the need for running shoes. He issued a challenge to shoe makers,

“Is any running-shoe company prepared to claim that wearing their distance running shoes will decrease your risk of suffering musculoskeletal running injuries? Is any shoe manufacturer prepared to claim that wearing their running shoes will improve your distance running performance? If you are prepared to make these claims, where is your peer-reviewed data to back it up?” 

He was met with a resounding silence.

That is, until Nike came out with the “Free,” a shoe that simulates barefoot running. In other words, caught with absolutely no evidence to justify their existence, Nike attempted to sell a shoe that’s not a shoe. Now that’s marketing in action! There’s also the Vibram Five Fingers, an odd looking slipper-type non-shoe. While the Vibram has it’s adherents, especially when it comes to preventing cuts from sharp objects, I feel that one of the points of running or walking barefoot is that it forces you to be more careful about the way you put your feet down.

A paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “Hazard of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear” attempted to explain why wearers of expensive shoes have a 123% greater injury rate than wearers of inexpensive shoes. They showed,

“(1) deceptive advertising of protective devices may represent a public health hazard and may have to be eliminated presumably through regulation; (2) a tendency in humans to be less cautious when using new devices of unknown benefit because of overly positive attitudes associated with new technology and novel devices.”

The point about “overly positive attitudes associated with new technology” is a lesson well worth remembering, it seems to me. I could go on and on. I think this poetic video of a young man from Kenya, who has never worn shoes in his life, says it all:

As Kirk Anderson says, “Backwards is the new forwards.” It ain’t about nostalgia for some mythic past, the point is we’re actually going forwards here by working with nature rather than arrogantly trying to control her. And don’t worry dear readers, my hair won’t get “long and shaggy” and I’ll keep the leather boots for beekeeping duties, but you can bet I’ve bought my last pair of $100 running shoes.

For more information on barefoot running see http://therunningbarefoot.com/

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23 Comments

  1. I too have been intrigued by this idea! I’m to the point where I *have* to wear shoes in the house to “prevent” foot pain. But my biggest question about barefoot running: Where do you do it? What about rocks, glass, slivers, dog poo? Are you confined to a treadmill?

  2. Stephanie,

    Barefoot running adherents suggest, paradoxically, that you run on a hard surface. It quickly trains you to be gentle putting your foot down and to not heel strike. I’m running on a hard-packed dirt path right now, but am considering carefully trying concrete as well. You have to scan the ground for debris, much like you do when riding a bike. Glass is the only thing I’m worried about, but so far no problems. It does take some time to build up calluses on your feet.

  3. I would highly recommend adding a pair of earh shoes to your new regiment. Negative heel. I tried all the stretching, shoe inserts, wearing braces at night. Now I wear the shoes a couple times a week and plantar fasciitis is at bay. I still stretch and your article makes me realize that it does flair up after hikes in my trail running shoes. So I still need to try some other things but I did get an amazing relief with a simple pair of shoes.

  4. I bought a pair of Vibrum Five Fingers shoes last year hoping to venture out more with less, with the intent of eventually spending much time shoeless. Only problem, the first week I wore them I failed to adjust to a softer step and ended up messing up my heal and leg. I put the fingers away but will be getting them out soon and trying again this year–hopefully much wiser.

    Want some mad encouragement? Check out these two: http://www.barefoothikers.org/barefoot-sisters.html

    I’ve walked the AT from Mass. to Harper’s Ferry (with the best boots available) and I barely survived the rocks of PA. How these girls did it….well….simply a testament to human will.

  5. I just viewed my above post and thought I’d left my name. Infortunately, I’m not currently engaged in any activities that would provide me a profile.

    So, I’ll remain Anonymous but I go by Jed.

  6. Thanks Jed for the link on the barefoot hikers. Hiking boots can cause wicked blisters and can actually lead to a wilderness survival situation if you’re not careful. I think the barefoot hikers are on to something. Mrs. Homegrown just sent me a note: “following the link left by a commenter brought me here–says the bare foot conforms to sharp objects on the ground, reducing chance of puncture:

    http://www.barefooters.org/medicine/foot_ankle-14.6.html

  7. Huh! I saw a guy running in those funny footy things while I was waiting for the bus one morning. Now I know what they are. I guess walking around the house in your socks would be okay? We pretty much wear socks and Birkenstocks around the house, and my street shoes are Dansko clogs. It’s gotten to the point where I hate putting anything else on.

  8. I’ve been using Vibram Five Fingers for almost a year now and I really love them. I don’t like running much, but when I’ve run in these (to catch the train or when I’m just running late) I notice how light my feet feel and how much faster I feel like I’m running. I bought VFF’s because I have low arches in my feet and even $400 custom-made orthodics aren’t perfect with keeping my knees and ankles free of pain, but my VFF’s have. I would say that now my legs feel like they have more stamina and in general my legs hurt me much less when I do have to wear my boots (I need the ankle support) for extended periods of time.

  9. I love the idea of barefoot running, but I’m personally not sure I could do it. Most folks I’ve met that run barefoot usually clock less than 3 miles per run. Simply, I run more than that. I’m not really sure why they don’t go farther… I would be curious to hear about the distances you go, especially if you are running 8+ miles barefoot. Also, I would be curious to know how long it takes you to “build up” your feet to that.

    Also, do you switch off barefoot + shoes when you first start, or just barefoot? I’m interested to hear your experiences…

  10. This is so interesting. My son does karate on a wooden floor with no shoes. When we went to buy running shoes they would not sell him any without a podiatrist’s recommendation. When he stood for the podiatrist barefoot she said she could not understand why he was there. Then she asked him to relax his foot and his arch moved 18mm. Apparently the barefoot karate has lead to him developing calf muscles which support bad arches. That would never have happened in shoes.

  11. I’m in a quandary, where I’d like to go about barefoot, but my arches flatten when I put weight on my feet. No weight, then the arch reappears. On top of that, I have inherited bunions which may have been made worse with 7 years of soccer in childhood. The metatarsals for my big toes are each about double the angle they should be. I wear orthodics, but mostly when I go outside. Around the house it’s bare feet or socks. I’ve had problems with shin splints and inflamed knees and hips, but if I ever feel achey I cut up a clove of garlic and take it with a glass of water.

  12. The shoes that helped me the most in my transition to barefoot running were a $7 pair of “water socks.” I took the liner out and started at day one of the Couch to 5K program. I would start off barefoot with the shoes tucked into my waistband. When I started to get uncomfortable I would slip them on and continue where I left off. It took about a month to stop bringing the shoes along at all.

  13. Actually, VFFs are not as thick as you think. There’s no arch support to speak of and the sole is about 3mm thick.. I still feel sharp rocks quite distinctly and the grain in downed logs quite well. Really, all they do is keep you from getting a bloody sole on something sharp as you run around in them. I’ve completely transitioned away from all my shoes except for 2 pairs of flip flops. VFFs have honestly changed my walk, posture, and feelings toward exercise drastically for the better.

  14. We are big supporters of the VFF in our homestead. We are crossfitters, my boyfriend is a trainer, and got turned onto them that way. The thing about barefootedness for me in the city is, I have to wear shoes in businesses and I also don’t want to deal with bruised feet because I’ve stepped on a rock on the sidewalk or whatever hard surface I’m on. On the dirt, a stone gives from both ways. On that pavement, it only pushes up into my foot. I don’t like it.

    We do think that barefoot running is the way, though. I think a lot of people have been sold this kind of bad science from marketing companies on so many fronts and we are finally realizing that it was their pocket and not our health that they were worried about. It’s hard to change direction, but I think we are finally doing so.

    Thanks, as always, for your amazing work!

  15. Interesting concept though I’m surprised by the number of posters here saying they wear shoes indoors. I never wear shoes indoors and leave mine at the door once I get home. I would suggest that before running barefoot people take it easy and walk around the house barefoot for a couple of months. I have calluses from just doing that, and it’s certainly safer (or should be) than running in an urban area right from the get-go.

  16. My years of extreme plantar fasciitis were cured by doing yoga. I’d always spent a lot of time barefoot, but actually strengthening various muscles in my feet and making them ACTIVE again did the trick in a relatively short period of time. The “fix” has lasted fifteen years so far.

  17. I have flat feet and wear custom arch supports which I started wearing around 12 years old. Quite a few pairs later, I have to wear them, otherwise my ankles resort to pain.

    May of 2009, I went to NYC and we stopped by the Nike Store. The Free shoes were on display and after checking them out, I had to try them. The salesperson suggested I would not benefit from them as my arch supports would limit the flexibility of the shoe. I didn’t care.

    THESE SHOES ARE AMAZING.

    I can walk in them for ages and not have any problems. Light and comfortable, I look forward to wearing them. I guess it’s safe to say it’s the closest thing (no I haven’t tried VFFs) to barefoot I’ll reach.

  18. I am resurrecting this thread, as I find it really interesting. “When you run barefoot you tend to strike with the ball of the foot first instead of the heel, which eliminates that initial impact spike”. I have noticed that too, as I tend to walk barefoot at home and even outside sometimes.

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