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Barefoot Running


When it comes to barefoot running, there are usually two opposing views among people. The first group of people finds it is good for health, while the second is trying to deny it, by all means. This question is studied by many experts, however, in order to give a definite answer, these studies are still insufficient. People who run barefoot, such as Christopher McDougall, bestselling author of "Born to Run”, argue that this kind of running has positive effect on gait and prevents damage of the back, knees and ankles. Opponents of such theory state that this running leads to many problems with health. The present paper is devoted to the discussion of barefoot running and possibility of diseases and injuries. The advantages and disadvantages of such kind of running will be discussed.

Introduction and background

In recent years, in relation to the investigations of Professor David Lieberman, the fashion for natural running or so-called barefoot running has appeared and gained high popularity among people. The main objectives of the present paper is to discuss the main options and characteristics of barefoot running, show its positive and negative features and, based on the studies and literature review, prove or disapprove that barefoot running leads to the decrease of injuries and are less traumatic, compared to conventional running in the footwear.

Without going into the deeper details of the studies, professor outlined the essence that while running in sneakers, foot hits the surface of the heel first and then the edge of the foot and toe. In this case, the limb have higher shock load (in two waves), which contributes to injuries. This is the main reason why barefoot running has become so popular. They say that when running barefoot, the runner subconsciously puts his foot on the first sock. In this case, the muscles and ligaments of the foot and ankle amortize the blow, which falls on foot, so it causes less likelihood of injury when running. For the studies, professor compared Kenyan and American runners and it turned out that in Kenyans, who are accustomed to run without shoes from childhood, the foot first touches the ground with toe and forefoot when running, while in the comparison group, the first contact comes on the heels.

The discovery of professor has greatly excited the world of running and resulted in boom of barefoot running and minimalist footwear. This style of running binds the possibility of lower limb injuries in runners. Athletic footwear market reacted the discovery very promptly and introduced special minimal footwear with all the necessary means of running activities.

When asked about the existing interest level in running barefoot or in minimalist shoes, 80.2% of respondents indicated they were at least interested in it and in the outcomes for foot from this kind of running5. 21.9% of the respondents had before tried barefoot running, and 30.4% had before tried running in minimalist shoes5. The most popular trademarks of used minimalist shoes were the Vibram Five Finger (Vibram SpA, Albizzate, Italy), Nike Free (Nike,Inc., Beaverton, OR, USA).

Mechanisms of barefoot running and that in shoes are essentially different. When running shoes man habitually moves weight on his heel first and then on the toe, barefoot runners prefer to run with a sock: it protects the foot from injury. Ability to walk and run on two legs distinguishes humans from apes and has long been considered a mechanism of adaptation of hominids - people and our extinct ancestors. This type of movement is a few million years old, with 99 % of the time people went barefoot and did not use shoes. Special anatomy of the human foot and resulted in walking on two legs barefoot and now most of the world's population uses the shoes, but in some traditional societies, walking barefoot continues to be the norm.

It is easy to assume that the constant wearing of shoes made some changes in the structure of the feet and the manner of walking. Famous Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes once stated in his novel " The Sign of Four " : it is impossible to mix the trace of the person, who has never worn shoes, because his toes are apart. Nonetheless, the study, published in Nature, shows that the mechanism of barefoot running (among people who have never worn shoes) and running shoes is completely different7. People, running barefoot, first step on the ball of foot that is on its front or the middle part. People running in shoes, first step on the heel that is on the back of the foot. The mechanism of barefoot running is designed to distribute the body weight, which is put on one foot in the moment of touching the surface. Stepping on the toes, the blow is somewhat softened. It makes barefoot running comfortable and prevents injuries that can occur when running. However civilization intervened in the evolutionary process and in the 70s of the last century there the sports shoes with shock absorbing sole, which lifts the heel slightly, appeared in the footwear market. When running in shoes with traditional amortization mechanism, transfer of weight to the front part of the foot becomes not necessary.

Scheme of the foot movement in the shod man running and a graph of dependence of load upon time. 

When comparing the runners barefoot with those in conventional sports footwear, the scientists noticed some peculiarity: feet, of the runner in traditional sport shoes, always land on the heel without any fear of injury, because these runners feel themselves protected, at least artificially4.

Scheme of the foot movement in the barefoot man running and a graph of dependence of load upon time. 

People who run barefoot put the foot in different ways, depending on the type of territory and the situation. Sometimes they also land on the heel, but more often they avoid this, since multiple sharp heel kick on a hard surface can cause injury. Landing on the flat part of the foot, somewhere in the middle, or even taking a blow by lateral surface lift arch is much safer. The choice of method of landing varies biomechanics of run significantly. In the case of the landing on the front and middle part of the foot, the center of pressure at the moment of kick in in front part of the foot, then it moves to the heel, but for a short time period, as the toes of the foot leave the ground while running. In the case of a landing on the heel, the runner hardly relies on the toe, only during the final isolation of the foot. In addition, barefoot runners make longer steps, put the calves more vertically, which allows them to move their mass center closer to support in order to mitigate the kick. It makes running more smooth, allowing you to avoid shaking and surges.

Why to choose barefoot running?

Many people may ask where roots of the fashion of running barefoot are and why it is so popular nowadays. The answer to this question is given by many scientists, who state that people are born barefoot, so this is a part of our nature. Humans have spent much time running barefoot and our body is accustomed to barefoot jogging and running, and using modern and fashionable sport shoes are just part of fashion, dictated by society. Numerous scientists highlighted this fact that people used nothing while living in wild nature, so barefoot is part of the tactics for survival. Most mammals are sprinters and use speed and suppleness as predators. However, they are incapable to maintain such speeds for long periods of time. Finally they will need to rest to avoid any risk overheating and death. Although, the leading shoe producing companies have the best intentions to promote their leather and qualitative shoes, people are barefoot runners and, no matter how much positive information and feedback we receive from the footwear producers, barefoot running is much useful for health.

Running barefoot: reality or myth?

Consensus about the benefits of barefoot running is still out there as a lot of supporters for and against. Journal of the American Medical Association has recently published a review of the existing literature on barefoot running, and they concluded that there is still still not enough information to completely confirm or refute the claims of running barefoot. Although the authors of the review really discussed that barefoot running can be one of the most effective training methods for athletes and coaches everyone can understand and minimize the risks of injury. In addition, a recent study conducted by the American Board of Physical Education also shows some mixed results8. Though some of the runners entered the minimalist shoes and changed its course in a better way, more than a half did not and still assert that barefoot running has nothing in common with useful running and has negative effects on feet and health in general. After all, just because you have started to run barefoot does not mean that you automatically start doing it right. It is important to explore and understand this before implanting barefoot running and including it in the everyday training program. If you are still thinking about how and when to start running barefoot, then there are some pros and cons that should be taken into account. Below are some pros and cons of barefoot running, offered by medical specialists and usual runners.

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  1. Efficiency of the runners barefoot was 4% higher than among those who run in sport shoes. Moreover, the velocity of barefoot runners is much higher.
  2. Scientists assert that walking and running without shoes improves gait, and it contributes to strengthening and toning leg muscles, ligaments and tendons.
  3. When running, those men who wear shoes put their weight on the heel.  man rests on the heel because it wears shoes. When running barefoot, body is weight in the middle and front of the foot. While relying on the rear part of the foot, body is subjected to additional load - as a result of the shift of hip joints, knees and ankles that expose them to additional undesirable effect of the shock strength.
  4. Every year about 30% of the runners are injured because of tissue tension. Running without shoes stretches the tendons and muscles of the leg, reducing the chance of injury.
  5. While running barefoot, small muscles of the legs are activated, feet and thighs improve balance and sense of position and orientation of the various parts of the body.
  6. When running barefoot at every step the toes touch the ground completely, making people feel more closely connected with the outside world.
  7. Running without shoes should be practiced slowly, and the runner should look carefully in front of him.
  8. Barefoot running also helps reduce the negative impact on the environment, caused by the mass production of sports sneakers.


  1. Running barefoot people can injure feet with stones, debris, broken glass and other debris, which is often scattered on the road9.
  2. People who are not used to run without shoes, initially experience pain and discomfort because their muscles are not accustomed to such loads. Sudden lack of sneakers or shoes becomes a real shock for legs and feet9.  
  3. Plantar fascia is dense fabric that forms the bottom of our feet. If to run without protection in the form of sneakers, one may get pain, which can then develop into plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the plantar tissue).
  4. At first, when your feet are not used to such a run, on the bottom surface of the foot blisters may occur, which can hurt badly.
  5. Moreover, the risk of catching an infection through cracks and blisters that appears on barefoot running increases.

Risk factors of barefoot running

Speaking about the risk factors of injuries of the lower extremities associated with jogging, a number of reasons are identified. None of these reasons is absolute and the whole picture should be assessed individually, taking into account all the nuances and facts about the way of life of the runner, his state of health and other conditions. The assessment should take into account that:

  • The risk of chronic injury is increased in people with no previous experience of sports.
  • Usually sports, jogging and other species become extremely popular when summer season approaches and the load increases disproportionately to the readiness of the musculoskeletal system for such loading, consequently leading to numerous health problems. Here is appropriate proverb: " the slow and the steady win the race ." it is extremely appropriate when telling about the loading while running or jogging.
  • Body weight directly affects the impact the kick force when feet contact with the surface (GRF - ground reaction force). That is, the higher the body weight, the more likely the risk of injury. For example, the studies, conducted with the Australian runners demonstrated that the risk of injury increased 6 times in the runners whose body mass index was above 2610.  

Implementation of barefoot running

Barefoot running is getting its popularity after numerous researches that demonstrate its obvious advantages, and now we can see that more and more are trying this method of running. Taking into account that many footwear companies have caught the idea of barefoot running, they have started to produce minimalist shoes to motivate people and show their support of the idea. The main motivating factor for those who had earlier added barefoot or minimalist shod running to their everyday training schedule was prevention of the possibility of injury. One more driving factor included performance improvement and curiosity, as people started training in special shoes because of simple interest about the possible outcomes of such running. People got to know about the use of barefoot running from different sources, such as medical websites, researches, information taken from medical TV programs and from friends, who have known about the innovation in the world of running.

It is interesting to know that runners who had run either barefoot or in minimalist footwear most usually transitioned to barefoot or to running in minimalist shoes over a period of 2 weeks10. All of them witnessed positive effect from this kind of running and lack of fatigue in muscles after running even long distances. When the respondents were asked about any adverse reactions, occurred after running barefoot or in minimalist shoes, they said that they did not notice any adverse reaction.

Researches of barefoot running

There are quite many researches and studies, devoted to barefoot running, as this method of running has become extremely popular among the runners of the whole world. Despite numerous positive feedbacks and information, there are still facts stating about the high risk of injury in barefoot runners and small period of times, during which barefoot running can be performed. Researchers are working on a study of this method and they have presented more than a dozen researches at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine10. One study shows that out of 12 participants, who were running barefoot and in shoes over six minutes, the latter needed more time to breath and rest. Barefoot runners are not breathing as hard as shod ones, their hearts beat less often. Moreover, they are not so much tired. Joel De Paoli , Master of Medical Sciences, conducted the experiment when he was a physiologist at the University of San Francisco10. He said that the effectiveness of running in shoes can be reduced due to the fact that primarily relates to land heel. This prevents forward movement. " When running barefoot people often lands on the forefoot ," - he says and it was the main argument in barefoot running support.

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One more study, conducted by specialists Hadriane College in Michigan, examined the runners competing on speed, who tried shoes «Vibram Five Finger Bikilas», which resembles a glove for the feet. As a result, the runners shoed 7.17 minutes of running in traditional shoes and 7.36 minutes in the minimalize shoes10. The researchers estimated that the weight of the shoe by only 18 % reflected on the difference in speed.

The third study showed that some runners were injured, when they started to run barefoot. 18 of the 109 participants in the online poll reported about muscle or bone injuries. Sixteen reported about damage of the bottom of the foot. "People who run barefoot, often complained of pain in the calves and tendinitis (inflammation of the tendon tissue)," researcher Allison Altman, PhD says10.  She also kept track of corns and was surprised that a relatively small number of people affected by the cuts. In general, the number of injuries was small, if to take into account the fact that 70% of runners receive some injuries every year.

Risk of osteoporosis

One of the assumptions of the risk of barefoot running is the development of osteoporosis and high possibility of muscles traumas. This supposition was expressed by the opponents of barefoot running.  They say that this type of running causes problems with skeleton and vertebra, increasing the risk of different injuries and development of chronic diseases4.

Recently, American medicines have started to receive more and more complaints of the injuries of lower limbs.  After collecting anamnestic data, it has revealed that most of the patients, are trying the system of barefoot running, which is so popular at the moment. This trend is due to the fact that people choose ecological direction in life, being confident that the shoe has a negative impact on bone and muscle in the training process. Scientists, who are worried of unsafe trend, studied barefoot running from the point of view of science. Proponents of green ideas believe that running in shoes and even in special sneakers leads to bone deformation and promotes problems with the musculoskeletal system. Therefore, in Europe and America, barefoot running is getting so popular. However, due to the frequent injuries, including not only the external nature, the scientists decided to explore this advanced habit in Europeans and Americans.

Researchers from Brigham Young University ( Utah, USA ) were able to establish that running barefoot increases the load on the bones of the lower limbs, resulting in cracks and micro fractures that may eventually adopt a more threatening form - up to osteoporosis and arthritis. In addition, during the observation of the volunteers, the scientists managed to establish that women are amore subject to the injuries when running, due to the fact that a significant number of postmenopausal women acquire diseases of the locomotor system.

 In order to obtain these data relevant to society, American scientists studied a group of people running around in the morning every day. The research lasted 10 months. For the purity of the experiment before the study, all participants underwent an MRI10. After MRI, the participants were divided into two groups: the main group was to do daily jogging barefoot; the second should run in special sneakers.  At the first stage of the study, volunteers ran up to 2 km a day, and after 2 weeks of daily running this distance increased up to 3 miles. After 10 weeks, all participants were made the magnetic resonance imaging.

The result was that in the group of those who daily ran barefoot, numerous cases of damage of bone integrity were recorded. In this case, the scientists observed numerous micro fractures and micro cracks, which are heavily traumatized bone and contribute to the development of systemic disorders of the musculoskeletal system. With regular training in shoes, knee joint will probably need replacement, as cartilage and bone of the lower limbs is experiencing severe stress without dampening properties of the shoe.

Barefoot running for children

Nowadays, parent s and adults are trying to attract their children in barefoot running, because, as researches demonstrate, this kind of running is extremely useful for feet and health of children, whose skeleton and muscles are in the period of active development and growth. There are many reasons why children should run and walk barefoot, and parents have to take into account the peculiarities of children skeleton and muscles system, which is very vulnerable and easy to injure.

There is quite limited evidence relating to barefoot running and walking in children and its connection with children skeleton development. According tone study, provide by German scientists, the augmented occurrence of flatfoot and hallux valgus (bunions) in children may be the result of lack of constant barefoot walking and running. The foot of the baby is developing up to 10 years, so this period is extremely important to get the child accustomed to correct walking.  The German study stated that barefoot walking is the best condition for the development of a correct skeleton and healthy foot. Walking and running on different surfaces such as grass, sand, and artificial running tracks may certainly improve healthy foot development. Though, the problem of barefoot walking on different kinds of hard surfaces, such as pavements, may change the process of biomechanics of walking and running. This may result in arthritic changes and therefore a decrease in foot function. One more worrying concern is the influence of obesity and overweight on development of children’s feet8.

According to recent studies, presented by New Zealand scientists, there are three lifestyle risk factors related to obesity: lack of physical activity, skipping breakfast, and deficient sleep on Weekdays. The parents are strictly recommended to make their children run and walk, preferable barefoot, in order to get the children’s feet accustomed to the ground and develop the ability of correct posture and walk.

Barefoot running and general state of health

In general, after reading and discussing of all the positive features of barefoot running, it will be necessary to say about its influence of general state of health, feelings and mood. Any physical training has positive effects on our health and mood, but barefoot running is something exceptional5. The scientists, after numerous researches, have stated that running barefoot leads to the state of happiness and satisfaction in life. It went from ancient times, when people believed that land is able to absorb negative energy and feelings and people, who run barefoot are more likely to give their negative energy to the ground, having positive feelings and cheerfulness in exchange.


People, who have read about the barefoot running start thinking about the practicing this kind of running, but it is necessary to be extremely careful and weight all pros and cons, as what is good for one person, does not always mean the same for another. None say that barefoot running is a panacea against all problems, but it can significantly decrease risk of health problems and improve general state of the body. From a practical point of view it would be appropriate again to state that if you want to lose weight and to avoid injury, it is desirable to first start with a combination of running and brisk walking, or with a bicycle5. Thus it is possible to reduce the critical weight to the point when running will be less traumatic. The main thing in the beginning is not the intensity of training, but the volume and frequency.

Running with high speed, still has value as a factor influencing the GRF6. The faster one runs, the more strongly the foot beats the surface. Therefore, it is strongly recommended for the barefoot runners to start their trainings step by step and not develop high speeds at once.

Before practicing barefoot running, it is necessary to check if feet and ankles are strong and stable enough to run without the support of the shoe. Secondly, the transition to barefoot running should be gradual, so it is impossible and not recommended to combine regular running training and brief barefoot running as an additional burden. But it is still desirable to develop a plan for this competent training. Also, there is a need to develop new skills treadmill technology while gradually move from tight shoes with high shock absorption for softer models with individual. One can purchase several different types of running shoes each of which would have its own model for different formats.

Finally, one should always keep in mind that when running barefoot, there is the risk of getting a bruise, cut or abrasion. Numerous studies inform about peculiarities of barefoot running and prevent about possible traumas and injuries.



Reference List

  1. Altman AR, Davis IS. Barefoot running: biomechanics and implications for running injuries. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2012;11(5):244-50. DOI: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e31826c9bb9. Accessed March 23, 2014.
  2. Barefoot Running. Journal Of The American Chiropractic Association [serial online]. March 2013;50(2):33-34. Available from: CINAHL Plus with Full Text, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 23, 2014.
  3. Hawley J. Running [e-book]. Oxford: Blackwell Science; 2000. Available from: eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 23, 2014.
  4. Jennifer FM. Is barefoot better? Horse & Rider, 2006;45:50-7. Accessed March 23, 2014.
  5. Jungers WL. Biomechanics: Barefoot running strikes back. Nature. 2010;463(7280):433-4. Accessed March 23, 2014.
  6. Krabak BJ, Hoffman MD, Millet GY, Chimes GP. Barefoot running. PM&R. 2011;3(12):1142-9. Accessed March 23, 2014.
  7. Lieberman DE. What we can learn about running from barefoot running: an evolutionary medical perspective. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. 2012;40(2):63-72. DOI: 10.1097/JES.0b013e31824ab210. Accessed March 23, 2014.
  8. Mullen S, Cotton J, Bechtold M, Toby EB. Barefoot Running: The Effects of an 8-Week Barefoot Training Program. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine. 2(3). DOI: 10.1177/2325967114525582. Accessed March 23, 2014.
  9. Rome K, Hancock D, Poratt D. Barefoot running and walking: the pros and cons based on current evidence. The New Zealand Medical Journal. 2008;121(1272):109-11. Accessed March 23, 2014.
  10. Rothschild CE. Primitive running: a survey analysis of runners' interest, participation, and implementation. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(8):2021-6. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823a3c54. Accessed March 23, 2014.

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