"Shoes do no more for the foot than a hat does for the brain", said Dr Mercer Rang, orthopedic surgeon and researcher in pediatric development, and increasingly, athletes of all varieties have come to agree with him. Running without shoes or in shoes that enable you to feel the ground has become all the rage following the release of Born to Run: The Hidden Tribe, the Ultra-Runners, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Profile Books 2010), the bestselling book by journalist Christopher McDougall.
After years of recurrent running injuries, McDougall successfully changed his running style to mimic people of the reclusive Tarahuma tribe of the Copper Canyons in Mexico, some of whom run over 100 miles at a time, at incredible speeds, without the routine injuries of most modern runners. McDougall went on to investigate the multi-billion-dollar sports shoe industry and debunks many running myths, such as the idea that humans have never run on hard surfaces barefoot. In fact, people of many cultures have —and still do—run on sun-baked surfaces as hard as concrete.
As McDougall writes, "Only in our lifetime has running become associated with fear and injury. Do you think Geronimo worried about plantar fasciitis before setting off to run 50 miles across the stone-hard Mojave desert to steal horses?"
McDougall cites many other examples of injury-free running before the modern trainer was invented, such as Ramesses II, the celebrated Egyptian pharaoh, who had to legitimize his hold on the throne every few years by performing a long-distance run, which he continued to do until he was more than 90 years old.
Today, the so-called 'Marathon Monks' of Mt. Hiei in Japan travel up to 50 miles a day in flimsy sandals and attempt to do so for seven years to attain enlightenment. And, of course, all manner of animals run perfectly well without shoes.
Running injury is explained by many barefoot running proponents as being caused by a lack of skill rather than some deficiency of the foot or the kind of support offered through shoes. Ever more cushioned shoes simply encourage poor technique, which strains the ankles, knees and hips because it doesn't allow for the body's natural feedback of any shock to the system and the need to respond and change.
The heel-to-toe foot-strike is commonly recommended by many a shoe salesman, but try doing this in bare feet on a hard surface and your body will soon ask you to stop.
Barefoot running isn't simply about performing the same action with no shoes, but about going back to the thinner soles ('minimalist shoes') that allow feedback from the ground, which is necessary for a mindful movement without injury. This involves changing the whole technique, foot to head, to alter the transmission of force up from the ground at every part of the movement.
"We found pockets of people all over the globe who are still running barefoot, and what you find is that during propulsion and landing, they have far more range of motion in the foot and engage more of the toe. Their feet flex, spread, splay and grip the surface, meaning you have less pronation and more distribution of pressure," says Jeff Pisciotta, a senior researcher at Nike's Sports Research Lab.
This subject is of particular interest to Dr Daniel Lieberman, a paleoanthropologist in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. In his book The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease (Vintage, 2014), Lieberman describes how the human foot differs from that of our nearest primate cousins because of our ability to harden the instep to take a forward step. This was necessary to allow us to take a full forward bipedal step, with the feet under the hips, while our nearest flat-footed chimpanzee cousins sway side-to-side to walk upright and drop down on all fours to run.
Such insights were partly a result of Lieberman and colleagues' 2010 research paper, Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners, which compared the gaits of people who wore modern running shoes with cushioned soles to those of people who wore no shoes or shoes with less built-up soles.1
As the team noted, "Humans have engaged in endurance running for millions of years, but the modern running shoe was not invented until the 1970s. For most of human evolutionary history, runners were either barefoot or wore minimal footwear such as sandals or moccasins with smaller heels and little cushioning relative to modern running shoes."
By measuring how runners coped with the impact of the foot hitting the ground before the invention of the modern shoe, the researchers found that habitually barefoot endurance runners often land on the forefoot (forefoot strike) before bringing down the heel, but sometimes land with a flat foot (mid-foot strike), and land on the heel less often (rear-foot strike).
Even on hard surfaces, barefoot runners with a forefoot strike generate smaller collision forces compared to rear-foot strikers who wear modern running shoes.
By contrast, those who habitually wear shoes mostly have a rear-foot strike, facilitated by the elevated and cushioned heel of the modern running shoe.
This difference in the foot's impact relationship with the ground ripples up through the entire body (see below). For instance, the forefoot strike creates more plantar flexion in the foot, so that the toes press down and the sole of the foot is flexed—drawn in rather than extended.
This decreases the effective mass of the body colliding with the ground and softens the impact, so there is more compliance in the ankle to protect the feet and lower limbs from some of the impact-related injuries now experienced by a high percentage of runners.
From the ground up
The average runner strikes the ground almost 1000 times per mile, so runners are prone to repetitive stress injuries. Simply cushioning the blow is not effective—it's all about how we meet the ground.
Lieberman believes that while cushioned, high-heeled running shoes may be comfortable, they limit how much you can feel the ground. This means that we have to adapt our feet and legs to mitigate impact and are more likely to maintain the habit of landing on the heel. Barefoot running advocates say that cushioned shoes may also weaken foot muscles (including arch strength) through reliance on arch supports and stiffened soles that take over the role of the foot. This weakness may then contribute to 'excessive pronation,' where the foot rolls inward and the arches drop, as well as the foot condition plantar fasciitis, which is characterized by pain in the heel and bottom of the foot.
But not everyone agrees. A recent review of laboratory-based biomechanical studies found that although there are a number of differences between barefoot and shod running, almost all of these were just differences, with barefoot running neither shown to be superior nor linked to decreases in injury risk.2
The review ruled that claims of superiority made by barefoot-running advocates were not supported by the evidence. However, it also confirmed that there is a difference in load-bearing between the techniques and the likelihood of an adjustment period when moving from one to another. As it concludes, "There is nothing wrong with barefoot running, provided that the tissues that have an increased load in them are given time to adapt to the loads, and in some people that increase in loads may be too great. This also means that it has potential to help some runners by reducing the load in a problematic tissue."
Although this review argues that there is no evidence from 'the field' (running in real conditions outside rather than indoors in an experimental set-up), researchers from the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Virginia surveyed the experiences of more than 500 runners, 93 percent of whom incorporated some type of barefoot running into their weekly mileage. More than half of the survey respondents reported using barefoot running as a training tool to improve specific aspects of their running or recover from an injury, and 60 percent used it due to the promise of improved efficiency.
More than two-thirds of the respondents (68 percent) claimed that they had not experienced any new injuries after starting barefoot running, and about the same rate (69 percent) experienced relief of previous injuries after switching to barefoot running, reporting improvement of running-related issues, particularly of the knee (46 percent), foot (19 percent), ankle (17 percent), hip (14 percent) and lower back (14 percent).
The global athletic footwear market continues to grow and is projected to reach a value of $115 billion by 2023,4 whereas sales of minimalist or barefoot running shoes (by companies such as Vivobarefoot and Vibram) currently occupy a mere 2-3 percent of the speciality running shoe market.2 This reflects the success of the regular training shoe as a skillfully marketed sports and fashion item.
Nevertheless, whatever the fashion, there's no substitute for your own experience. Try getting more in touch with the ground, and your legs, knees, ankles and toes may well thank you.
Barefoot running technique
There are four foundations to barefoot running (see below), which may require a major relearning of technique. Nevertheless, they could well be worth the new body awareness that a return to a relaxed and natural motion can bring.
1) Balanced forward posture
With the forward propulsion of running, tipping forward makes sense. Barefoot running changes our balance, which may require a period of adjustment while you learn to stand tall and gaze forward, keeping the chest open and shoulders back and relaxed. Tipping your body slightly forward allows you to easily land on the forefoot or midfoot.
2) Safe and natural foot strike
Landing softly with the knee bent, as you naturally do with barefoot running, is far different from a heel strike, where it's more likely that the leg is too straight and the knee braced in position and overstriding (extended too far). In barefoot situations, you need to keep your feet under you, not in front. With no shoes or minimalist soles, you allow your feet to be messengers and inform how you may need to modify your stance or technique. Lean a little from the ankles, pick up your feet, focus landing on the outer ball of your foot, and your body will find its way.
3) Compact arms
This stance naturally creates small and relaxed arm movements, close into the body, with movement more easily pushed back and allowed to recoil forward, rather than swayed from side to side. This is an efficient, effortless movement that supports easy motion through the spine. The elbows only extend in front of the waist when sprinting.
4) High cadence
Cadence is tempo and rhythm, hopefully the easy, natural stride we fall into, where elastic recoil through the fascia seems to happen effortlessly. With barefoot running, this is often 170-180 steps per minute—a shorter stride without overextending. To work this out, try counting 30 steps per leg in 20 seconds. That will give you a 180-step cadence, and you should feel light, soft, quick foot placement.
All of this encourages mindfulness when running, where you relax your breathing, tune into your body, make less of an effort, recover more quickly, and avoid being ruled by expectation, competition or comparison with others or your own earlier times.
When you start, progress slowly as your body adapts to the change in force transmission. Here are a few key pointers to help smooth this transition and enable you to connect with natural, efficient motion:
• The harder the surface, the more softly you should land your feet
• Develop quick, springy feet that take over the bounce that cushioned shoes provide
• Relax and breathe through the nose with full exhalation.