Settling the Fitness Controversy of Barefoot Running

Whether you've been considering barefoot running or even picked up some minimalist running shoes, it's time to take a step back.

When Vibram FiveFingers shoes hit the market over a decade ago, they kicked off a trend with far-reaching consequences—barefoot running—and despite the name, barefoot running most commonly refers to running while wearing shoes.

Minimalist running shoes, like those from Vibram, are based on the idea that positioning the sole of the foot as close to the ground as possible is the best and most natural way to run because that's what it's like to run barefoot. The sole purpose of the shoe is to protect the foot from direct harm or debris. Unfortunately, while these shoes may protect runners from rocks or hot pavement, they otherwise left users vulnerable to running injuries.

A Ground-Up Approach

According to Dr. Lewis Maharan, injury prevention hinges on a building block approach. Without sufficient foot stability to support their running style, runners can sustain injuries all the way up the leg. And because most people don't go barefoot regularly, never mind actually run barefoot on challenging terrain, most are lacking this stability.

Of course, there are some runners who can excel with the barefoot running style, but these are almost exclusively elite runners whose form is already vastly different from that of the average runner.

What's the distinction? Foot and ankle surgeon Dr. George Holmes Jr. explains that elite runners spend most of their time in the air, rather than actually in contact with the ground. They use a quick heel strike-front foot motion to propel them through the air, while slower runners spend the majority of the time with their feet on the ground. These elite runners are working with much stronger building blocks than the rest of us.

The Evolution of a Runner

Elite sprinters and marathoners alike spend years training to reach the top of their field, and that training involves more than just running. These athletes perform countless other drills that strengthen their feet and legs. These activities, along with the associated changes to their form, mean that adding minimalist running shoes to their practice is unlikely to change much.

When elite runners put on minimalist shoes, they may feel faster, but they'll basically run at the same speed as before and, more importantly, they'll sustain the same number of injuries. The problem is, barefoot running's proponents argue that the practice can reduce injuries.

Most of the research on barefoot running—or at least most of the buzz—is based on the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, a study of the Tarahumara, indigenous Mexicans known for running barefoot ultramarathons with few associated injuries. The Tarahumara people run barefoot or wear thin sandals when running over the course of their entire lives, though. They have the building blocks that most modern runners don't.

Shoes Aren't a Solution

Modern runners need to understand that shoes won't make up for those missing foundational elements, which is why runners who've bought into the minimalist running shoe trend have encountered so much trouble. Physical therapists have seen an increase in foot injuries that correlate with the rise of barefoot running and Vibram, as the commercial face of the movement, has been subject to a class action lawsuit, settled for $3.75 million.

Whether you've been considering barefoot running or even picked up some minimalist running shoes, it's time to take a step back. Those who succeed at this style of training build their way up slowly but, ultimately, most runners fare better sticking with traditional shoes.