Is Barefoot Best For Distance Runners?

Jan 16, 2013   //   by James Dunne   //   Biomechanics & Running Technique  //  20 Comments  //  Affiliate Disclosure  

I was recently asked by a Twitter follower to give my opinion on the “anti-running-shoe theorists and barefoot is best advocates“.

I was also asked to give some clarity as to why, despite the growing trend of barefoot running, we don’t see elite runners opting for Zola Budd style barefoot running in competition, or elite marathoners running any of the many barefoot footwear options now on the market.

So, here we go…

The Fitness Industry Is Nuts!

Those of us who’ve been in and around in the Fitness Industry for a few years, either as professionals or consumers, have seen trends come and go, from MBTs to The Atkins Diet.

With every new trend you seem to get two distinct camps:

The Evangelists – For whom the given trend is the one life-changing answer to all problems. This is the key group that marketers of the new system / product rely on, as they tend to shout the loudest, often in lieu of any solid research to support their claims.

The Skeptics – The bunch who are quite happy doing what the’ve always done, when it comes to their training. They are certainly not ready to embrace the perceived left-field ways of the evangelist group.

Regardless of the nature of the trend, I rarely see a middle ground between these two polar groups – even despite the old saying: Everything is best in moderation… More on this with regard to barefoot running later!

The Best Coaching Advice I Ever Received

A wise coach and mentor of mine, once gave me some great advice for embracing different coaching concepts. To paraphrase, he advised me that subscribing to one specific method alone, is a lazy way of coaching. Instead, the educated coach will try and learn as much about each different approach as possible, applying the best elements of each, and discarding elements of less use.

In my opinion, this approach is why you don’t see truly elite-level running coaches overtly calling themselves POSE Method, Chi Running or Barefoot Running  coaches.

Take Alberto Salazar, coach to Mo Farah, Galen Rupp and other world class distance runners. He’s known to be big on running technique and strength training. This stems from a good understanding of sound biomechanical principals, and the ability to apply these in coaching individual athletes, rather than rigidly adhering to a pre-determined branded method of technique coaching, although he does seem to advocate many of the positive elements of POSE.

As a coach, I am far from finished article. While constantly trying to understand more, I’m inspired by the fact that I will never know it all. None of us will!

But that’s the fun of working as a coach isn’t it? There’s always more to learn!

So, What About Barefoot Running?

I actually believe that barefoot running is not a passing trend. I’m pretty convinced that it’s here to stay. However, it definitely seems to conform to my ‘Fitness Industry Trends’ (FIT… see what I did there) rule described above.

Most runners I see making the change to barefoot seem to approach it as a wholesale change, starting again from scratch, building up their running milage, doing it all either completely barefoot or (more likely) in zero-drop shoes, Vibram Five Fingers or similar.

Don’t get me wrong, many people find great benefit in making this change, and get over long standing injuries that way. After all, the currently inconclusive research shows that there are quite possibly quantifiable benefits in the changes in running form that barefoot running encourages.

FORM BEFORE FOOTWEAR

Here’s my main point, it’s not the act of running without shoes per se that holds the benefit, it’s the changes in running style that this act encourages.

These fundamental changes in running form (such as an increased cadence, the move away from the common over-striding heel strike, and improved posture) are usually encouraged by running barefoot, but are also reproducible in more traditional running footwear. Particularly when running in the growing range of shoes which hit a middle ground between barefoot and heavily cushioned.

It’s an in joke amongst my friends that I love my Asics Hyperspeeds, and do the vast majority of my milage in them – these are a good example of the type of “middle ground” minimalist running shoe I’m talking about.

 EVERYTHING IS BEST IN MODERATION

As I alluded to earlier, there is no need to place yourself in either the Evangelist or Skeptic camp when it comes to barefoot running.

For many years, long before the publication of “Born to Run” and subsequent trendiness of barefoot running, many top-level coaches have been incorporating barefoot into the training programmes of their athletes. For example getting their athletes to perform their drills barefoot or warm-up barefoot on grass, before completing their main running sessions in their personal footwear choice.

This measured approach to incorporating barefoot training into a runner’s programme helps to develop foot and ankle strength, improve running form and enhance proprioceptive feedback. All highly desired effects which will almost certainly carry-over into shod running.

WHY DONT WE SEE MORE ELITE BAREFOOT DISTANCE RUNNERS?

The following is purely speculation on my part, backed up by very limited (albeit interesting) research which poses as many questions as it answers!

In a 2012 study lead by Dr. Roger Kram and his students at the University of Colorado, it was concluded that in a very small sample (n=12) of experienced male runners, each with considerable barefoot experience, running barefoot provided no metabolic advantage when compared to running in lightweight, cushioned running shoes. In fact, shod runners we’re shown to use 3% to 4% less metabolic effort for the same speed and distance as those running barefoot with with weights added to the foot to simulate the mass of an equivalent running shoe.

A subsequent study by Dr. Kram’s group devised a method to isolate cushioning as the one variable. Thus they were able to observe changes in running metabolic efficiency as levels of cushioning available to the foot changed. Again with a very small sample (n=10) of experienced barefoot runners, all displaying a midfoot strike, they concluded that (in this group of midfoot runners) cushioning reduces the metabolic cost of running. They also identify that further research is obviously required.

This leads me to think that while barefoot running is a very useful training tool for improving running form and building strength in runners (when appropriately added to a training programme), it’s probably not the best option for runners who complete the high milage and intensity of run training required at elite-levels.

So, perhaps a minimalist shoe which combines a little cushioning with a low heel-to-toe drop is the way forward. This might allow for improvements in running form, while providing a little cushioning. That’s certainly what we see the majority of elite level distance runners wearing.

Let’s also not forget the financial rewards available to runners in the form of sponsorship from running shoe manufacturers. Would you walk away from that and go barefoot?! But enough on that already.

Let’s Discuss…

I don’t think there is one particular correct answer on this topic, certainly not one with a solidly researched evidence base. Every runner is different. The semi-rant above goes a long way to explaining my current thoughts on the subject of barefoot running!

I’m keen to hear any responses to this blog post – in the comment’s section below.

 

About The Author

James has an academic background in Sport Rehabilitation and a special interest in Applied Biomechanics. He currently coaches a large number of Runners and Triathletes across all levels of ability and performance. He's grown a strong reputation for enabling athletes to improve their running performance and overcome running injuries through improving their Running Technique and developing Running Specific Strength.

 

Facebook Comments

20 Comments

  • I just recently bought a pair of Five Fingers for the sole purpose of rehabbing a nagging ankle sprain from early November. Reteaching myself the proper way to strike, stride, and stabilize the lower leg is the best therapy I have had. While they are great for training I plan on continuing to run my marathons in a shoe.

  • Entirely agree with you, the “middle ground” is an ideal place to use all the sense from the periphery and leave the extreme bits.
    I had the opportunity to hear some of the “evangelists” speaking a year ago and was quite impressed to hear some sensible views expressed, not all quite as evangelical as I’d expected from their writing.
    I think the same thing is going on with the low carb diet craze at present. Something in the middle is probably best, but there will be variation, with outliers suited by extremes depending on factors such as activity, age, and genetics.

  • I got into Vibrams since October 2012 and improved my 14km PB (Sydney City2Surf) by 3min, and ran two full marathons in 3:27 and 3:11. My half marathon PB was 95min before wearing Vibrams, whereas my half-marathon mark at my last marathon race was 91min! I have stronger and bigger calves and have never had shinsplints or other common runner’s injuries since the ‘upgrade’ 😉

    Yes, I am an evanglist because running is different from soccer or tennis that are not natural sports/activities. We are born barefoot and should run barefoot like primitive humans. It is as simple and as clear as that. Conventional running shoes are just comfortable which comes with consequences and side-effects because that is just not natural. Of course one can adopt a body to fight the unatural effects of running in conventional shoes, but frankly speaking, does not it just sound silly?!

  • Brilliant thoughts on barefoot running as a training tool to work on strength and techniques; in moderation. Thanks.

  • Excellent article James. These are exactly my thoughts on the “Barefoot running debate” too, so it’s refreshing to hear another professional agree!

    • Thanks Graeme, there’s far too much trendy ‘BS’ written about Barefoot running for my liking! I like to see it as just being another coaching tool.

  • Thanks for sharing your perspective. I’ve heard too many “evangelists” telling me that I need to change my heel striking ways just because it’s old school, and not really have anything to back it up. I must admit I’ve been a skeptic for many years just because I’ve always been a heel striker and done well with it (3:07 marathon PB at 55 years old). I’m feeling, though, that maybe my inexplicable injuries could be due to the way I run. I’d like to try to change my form, but don’t know how to start. Last year I tried running on forefoot for just one mile at a very conservative pace (8:00/mile) and had a sore knee for two months. I have chronic Achilles tendon issues and have been reading lately that shortening my stride and getting more to mid-foot strike could help to eliminate this. I don’t have running coach, so how do I make a smooth transition to break the habit of heel striking (which could be hard because I’ve been running this way for 25 years!)

  • If you don’t change your posture to run barefoot or minimalist you will just run with your old bad style without the protection of traditional trainers and you will have more problems. I think that is the case for all but a few people, who probably ran with good style whatever they had on their feet. Having said that, trainers with thick heels make it much easier to run or walk with terrible posture.

    Foot strike is all about your posture and stride length. To just change your foot strike by itself is bound to result in injury is it not?

    That’s my uneducated opinion, for what it’s worth!

  • a very sensible overview – refreshing to see something which is not a crude ‘for or against’ tract.
    My own story is that I got interested to improve my form having been a ploddy middle aged jogger (still am, really). Stumbled on Pose and found it very pursuasive but ran into problems applying it, managing to set myself back with calf injuries and unsure how to proceed.
    I then got some vivobarefoot shoes in a free promotion ( I wouldn’t have bought them at the time) and decided to give them a go. I spent some time just wearing them to walk about in until I felt more at ease in them before trying running in them. I’ve now run about a year exclusively in vivos and feel great in them.
    My personal conclusion is that how you run is more important than what you put on your feet, but in my own case I found it difficult to find it without spending some time barefoot.
    There you go – Peter’s formula – do a little barefoot to improve your feel for footstrike, then the rest will follow. Easy!

  • I think, and I don’t mean this in a cynical way but the reason we don’t see many elite (world class runners) competing barefoot or in minimalist shoes is that they are all sponsored by the big shoe manufacturers rather than outside (of running) sponsors seen in other traditional sports.

    To be sponsored by NIKE or ADIDAS would hinder the sale-ability of their product if the elite runner chose not to wear the shoes when competing. I read many interviews with elites who all mention doing some training in barefoot shoes or barefoot but come competition they are also moving advertising for product. Do you consider this as a relevant reason to add to the debate. Its interesting to see in the history of track and field etc more barefoot runners in a time when individual sponsorship was not so prevalent.

    Also to look at the ultra scene which is not so heavily marketed, many of those runner have adopted and race in minimal shoes or are sponsored at least by companies such as New Balance with Anton Krupicka who readily accept and move more towards minimal shoes.

  • I agree with you, James, barefoot running (or zero-drop shoe running) isn’t the best option for high milage runners.
    I am a distance runner and a heel striker. I’ve been trying vibrams for around one year and expecting to see the assumed changing. But it doesn’t seem a help in shifting heel strike to forefoot strike for me. I am still heel striker for sure. And I’ve found out that when I run a shorter distance or faster run, I tend to land midfoot. It doesn’t matter what kind of footwear I wear.
    I buy Coach Bobby Mcgee’s perspective, that is there are good heel strikers and bad heel strikers; good forefoot/midfoot strikers and bad forefoot/midfoot strikers (http://bobbymcgee.com/to-heel-or-forefoot-strike-is-that-the-question/). Trying hard to manipulate runner’s mechanics (from running with shoe to without shoe) doesn’t seem a effective option to improve performance or to prevent injuries.

  • What about the shape of shoes?
    Not just cushioning

  • How do toes splay in Hyper’s

  • Another good, thoughtful post. I must admit I started to get a little evangelical after reading Born to Run, however I’m more in the form over footwear camp now. Mind you I find New Balance minimus 00 to be one the the most comfortable things I have ever put on my feet and, certainly up to 10k, they are my favourite shoes for running, though for longer distances I run in Brooks pure flow or Inov8 roclite 315s. Of course elite runners have been wearing minimalist shoes for years – they are called racing flats!

  • IS BAREFOOT BEST FOR DISTANCE RUNNERS?
    I have no idea but what I do know is that barefoot running is best for me. Having completed 100 mile races and regularly clocking up 120mile+ training weeks, i stand by the philosophy of if it aint broke, don’t fix it. Run in what’s comfortable and ultimately that’s the best choice for you.
    I believe that the blueprint of our biomechanics are pretty much the same, but not exactly the same or every individual leading to obviously different running styles. Running barefoot or in VFF’s is just as much a personal thing as running in asics or brooks.

  • Here’s my experience:

    1. Changing to a forefoot strike enabled me to run my first marathon, but I did suffer from some metatarsal stress injuries afterwards. I ran in racing flats and was running based on Pose principles which seemed to unlock my running potential.

    2. I’ve found that even on grass, running barefoot, my natural gait is for light heel contact, before weight-loading, sort of a guiding touch nearly under my hips. I used to be an extreme heel striker because that was the accepted “correct form,” and never could understand why I could play soccer for hours on end, but never run without injury on pavement. Now I know why. Overstriding is the culprit, but your heel can strike first without causing braking effects as long as your foot lands under or behind your knee, not out in front. (Also, you CAN overstride with a forefoot strike and it will cause braking forces.) My speed has a lot to do with where I foot strike. So I feel we it’s natural to change it up somewhat depending on how fast and how tired we are — as well as what the surface is like. I think humans are multi-speed, multi-footstrikers — ADAPTABLE.

    3. I am much more comfortable in racing flats that shoes with a lot of cushioning and high heel.

    4. Further research needs to be done on the softness of the cushioning and injury rate. When the cushioning is too soft — even if minimal, I feel it throws my natural gait off and I get more aches in my hips and back.

    5. Some minimalist soles are too flexible for me and cause my foot to ache: for me, a bit of stiffness in the sole — as found in most racing flats, is more comfortable.

    6. As far as evolution and running is concerned, there must be a reason why the heel bone is the largest bone — by far — of the foot, if not to take at least some of the impact of running. To say, the heel is just for walking is simplistic, as even when walking, some people walk on their toes, some on the heels, and everything in between.

    The best thing about the barefoot running and minimalist trend is that now there is a wider range of shoes to pick from. But for me, the classic racing flat is about where in the spectrum my foot falls!

  • Whoever your coach is he is right on. You take what you can and customize it to fit what you think is best and to the needs of the athlete being coached. There are some definites out there but the other techniques need to be taken with grains of salt sometimes.

  • I agree with the comment that everyone is different! Ran my 1st marathon in Merrell barefoot shoes, then did my fastest half marathon. I tried low profile shoe briefly, now I find the toe box so restricting. Ended up with MTP pain, switched back. I used to be antipronation/orthotics girl!

    As a PT I tell my patients to stick to what works for them, try to guide them to a lower drop/ lighter shoe with room for their toes.

  • Agree on many points BUT elites would run even faster barefoot over ANY distance. It’s – as u mentioned – all about the shoe sponsor $$. Check out my training videos, blogs etc. for more on my Squat/Scoot technique of barefoot running (I’ve been running barefoot for 15 years & coaching many to do likewise in my clinics).

  • […] then put our footwear back on for the rest of the session. This is a great example of using barefoot running as a coaching tool, rather than a lifestyle […]

Leave a comment. Ask us a question...