Is Barefoot Better?

Updated: August 23, 2013


By Nick Barringer MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS (EIEIO)

I remember in 2007 seeing some guys I worked with running around in black vibram shoes, wondering what the hell are those things on their feet. Today, minimalist shoes are so prevalent that you will catch the occasional soccer mom rocking a pair. But many still question—can it actually be better to have less cushioning on your feet?

The Beginning:

The main genesis of the barefoot movement is undoubtedly Born to Run by Mark McDougall. If you have not read the book it is worth a read even if you are not a runner. I’m not a big runner but still found the story of the Tarahumara Indian fascinating.

Although I give Mr. McDougall no credit for originality as he was simply telling us something Springsteen said nearly 40 years ago.

The Rationale:

Despite more padded shoes, running injury rates have pretty much remained constant. So the data certainly does not support the concept of more cushioning being protective.

Then there is mother nature: You have numerous muscles in your feet; why would we have them if they were not meant to work? It is also regularly argued that minimalist shoes promote a more natural gait. Which makes good sense because I challenge anyone to run barefoot and heel strike.

But some naysayers always say, “where is the science?” Well here it is (at least some of it):

In 2010 a group of researchers, led by Dr. Daniel Lieberman from Harvard University, where although prestigious, their students are most famous for getting upstaged by autodidactic janitors  looked at foot strike patterns and collision forces in barefoot runners and those wearing typical running shoes. The researchers discovered that barefoot runners experienced significantly lower impact force and strike with their forefoot where runners wearing shoes had higher impact forces striking with their heels. What I found most interesting is that the highest impact of a barefoot runner was 200 body weights per second while the highest for a shod runner was over 600 body weights per second. That is a huge difference and one can easily comprehend how that extra impact can lead to injured joints.

Dr. Lieberman came back in 2012 and wrote an excellent review on barefoot running starting with an evolutionary perspective and finishing out with current science. He points out that humans have spent more time not wearing shoes than wearing shoes and therefore might be maladapted to wearing them and that is part of the reason injuries occur. Also padded shoes limit proprioception, or your ability to feel the ground with your foot. So if you don’t feel the ground and adjust to the terrain you might be more likely to roll an ankle.

He also highlights his previously mentioned research regarding the greater impact force experienced by shod runners and research supporting that greater impact force leads to injury. Although there is currently no evidence supporting performance enhancing benefit from barefoot running, Dr. Lieberman points out that decreased shoe mass lowers energy cost: shoe mass increases running cost by 1% for every 100 grams of mass.

In another study published in fall of 2012 in the Journal of Military Medicine by LTC Donald Goss, an Army Physical Therapist, looked at 2,509 runners (1,254 male, 1,255 female) aged 18 to 50 and assessed running tendencies, foot strike patterns, shoe preferences, and injury history. LTC Goss provides a nice breakdown of injury rates for traditional vs. minimalist shoe wearing runners based on different anatomical regions of the body. The graph shoes that runners who wore traditional running shoes had a significantly higher injury rate in every region of the body listed. Pretty convincing stuff…

LTCGossgraphNow, I’m not telling everyone to throw away their running shoes and break out the vibrams. However, I believe there is enough evidence for minimalist shoes to be explored; just start slowly.

Although research shows reduced impact forces, impact forces do occur so don’t go all “Tarahumara” in week one. Try walking in minimalist shoes for a few weeks before you start running in them. When you do start running keep the volume low and do not increase by more than 10% per week. Realize that your mechanics are most likely going to change so things like your achilles will experience more stress in minimalist footwear than a shoe with a higher heel. Many companies have different heel toe drop in shoes so you can ease into a barefoot style shoe versus going from a 13 millimeter drop like that found in many standard running shoes to a 0 millimeter drop found in many barefoot styles.

Note that “Toeshoes” such as the five fingers are banned for wear with the PT uniform in the Army. However, many other options like the Merrell gloves, New Balance Minimus, or even just plain racing flats are available for wear with the uniform.

Well, that about wraps it up, since I’m out of original thoughts I will leave you with a great quote from Roger Bannister that applies to both running and life:

“Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must move faster than the lion or it will not survive. Every morning a lion wakes up and it knows it must move faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn’t matter if you are the lion or the gazelle, when the sun comes up, you better be moving.”




  1. Ashtof

    August 23, 2013 at 10:35 am

    What I’m now interested to hear about is how barefoot running affects (effects?) flat-footed runners/people.

    • Hollywood

      August 24, 2013 at 1:40 pm

      I’m flat footed and in the military. Only when I have to be in PTs do I wear regular running shoes. At first as my body got used to them, my back hurt and feet were sore.. No I love them and I feel so much better stand straighter and have noticed improvement in my runs.

    • John

      August 24, 2013 at 3:05 pm

      I’m extremely flat footed and over pronate. My feet are also very wide. I was told by doctors and foot specialists to wear extreme motion control running sneakers, which actually hurt a lot. I switched to running in vibrams and my minor back pain went away. I ran faster. And running was a sensory experience and not just a chore.
      Anyways. So with flat feet, you will still benefit from a minimalist running form. You ran around with your flat feet as a kid with no issues. So why put uncomfortably hard motion control shoes on now. I love my vibrams and Merrell Trail Gloves

    • Hendo

      August 24, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      Barefoot running and it’s effects on flat-footed runners would reasonably follow the effects of standard shoe running. Flat-footers are the result (broadly speaking) of a lack of proper plantar fascia, spring ligaments and associated musculature of the lower extremity. I think your wondering about a fore-foot or mid-foot gait that naturally occurs more in some than others, and how that would be influenced by bare footers. Really, not much. Barefooting will require either a change in foot strike or a lot of ibuprofren and ice for your knees (and later your hips, back and shoulders.

    • Matthew

      August 24, 2013 at 4:12 pm

      I have nearly flat feet and I will not use any other shoe. Your foot was made the way it was to hold your body. I have had knee and back problems since I got in the Marines, and now after being out for 3 years and solely using my Vibrams, I can say that I have little to no knee pain and no back pain at all.

  2. Emma

    August 23, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Thank you Nick! Always timely. Just yesterday I was admonished by a (non-lifter) lady in my gym for doing deadlifts and squats in socks. I prefer doing those lifts and a few others without shoes. What are your thoughts?

    • Nick Barringer

      August 23, 2013 at 2:30 pm

      Thank you for the question. I see nothing wrong with this practice as it is quite common to see people deadlift and squat in socks or a flat thin soled shoe. World records have been set in powerlifting by guys and gals wearing Chuck Taylors and let us not forget Arnold won Olympias training barefoot. Plus in deadlifts the closer your foot is to the ground the greater mechanical advantage you have. So maybe try educating your non lifting gym friend or find a gym that still allows/has chalk. I bet those members will understand.

    • Chris

      August 24, 2013 at 1:40 pm

      Emma, great question! I rarely lift barefoot in my gym, mainly because the floor is usually so dirty, but my preference is to lift barefoot. I seem to have better balance and more power in my lifts. I’m not a fan of wearing shoes unless I absolutely have to.

    • James

      August 27, 2013 at 1:56 am

      I use a pair of very well worn chuck taylors that are pretty much the next best thing to bare feet. I have lifted in just socks but gave up after experiencing traction issues!

  3. Lance Grames

    August 24, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    I think they are just more light weight (less mats) surely toughens your feet, but beyond that uncomfortable

    My pair always gave me blisters on one foot, even after braking them in. Guess my feet are different sizes and I refuse to by two pairs, to get them to fit right!

  4. Tony Kincaid

    August 24, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    I am a prior active duty Marine and in the Corps we had to wear traditional shoes. I suffered a number of injuries all minor but still injuries. After getting out of the Corps I started wearing Five fingers instead of my normal Shox and Zigs. I walked in them at first to adjust the muscles to the shoe and yes at first you can tell the muscles in your feet are worked out in the five fingers. But today almost 2 years later, I swear by the five fingers they help with stability and I can tell a difference in my running and working out. As of today I have had no injuries due to running and working out in them and also my knees and hips don’t hurt after running 3 miles or longer like they did in traditional shoes. Barefoot running all day for this guy!!!

  5. Madurin

    August 24, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    I was on the verge of getting a permanent profile for shin splints and struggling with weight loss. I transitioned to minimal shoe running in Korea and after 9 months was up to running PT test and beyond. I am a MUCH better runner than I was before, I haven’t had shin splint pain in years, and every muscle in my legs is much more strong and responsive than it was before.

    I took care, listened to my body, and pushed as much as I dared, and in the end had amazing successes. I have recommended to other heavy and built individuals who had the same pains as I did and report similar results.

    Simply put, the science makes sense and it worked for me. Can’t put it plainer than that; thanks for the excellent article!!

  6. Gabe

    August 24, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    “What I’m now interested to hear about is how barefoot running affects (effects?) flat-footed runners/people.”

    I’ve read a few things now that suggest running barefoot actually can help you develop arches. It causes the muscles in your foot to strengthen and those muscles then pull the foot-bones into proper orientation. Never seen a study though.

    I’m an avid barefoot runner though. Always had aches and pains from running, but now that I do it barefoot I have no other problems than my cardio. 🙂

  7. Charles

    August 24, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Ashtof, there is no reason that flat footed folks can’t run with minimalist or barefoot shoes. My first observation to support this is that motion control shoes have not reduced injury. Secondly if you learn how to run which is what McDougal did, you learn that running properly does not rely on limiting pronation of the foot.
    How to start properly? Work on cadence of at least 180/minute and building strength back in your calves by doing plyometric exercises such as jump rope (again focus on 180+).

  8. 'junkie

    August 24, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    I got into using Vibram 5 Fingers because I developed plantar fasciatis (sp?) when I first started taking PT seriously. I wore those things OUT to the point that my father threw them away when I shipped out for OSUT. Now I use the New Balance Minimus to stay in regs and use them for everything from PT to Crossfit to trail running. The only pain is when I occasionally get a stone bruise from a rock but typically I shouldn’t have stepped on the rock in the first place.

    Now what is the RangerUp opinion on minimal boot styles, like the Nike and now the Rocky’s and others? Garrison use only or do certain scenarios require different boots?

  9. Pete In Sun City

    August 24, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    I have flat feet, we ran in boots back in the day, which made us run on our forefoot, I never had any pain or injuries. Sometime in the 80’s we had to wear running shoes, after a couple of years; heel spurs, Orthotics aches and pains off and on till retirement. I’ve been wearing Merrell Road Gloves for a while and no more heel spurs or foot pain.
    Makes you wonder

    • James

      August 27, 2013 at 1:54 am

      Ah yes the joys of running in boots – I remember in the early “80’s the Australian Army tried to get NCO’s to not make us run on hard surfaces in boots, it was amazing what they defined as hard, apparently that was only concrete.

  10. Ted N

    August 25, 2013 at 10:03 am

    I’ve loved my Merrills since I got them. Calves hurt like hell for the first month or so, but now running doesn’t suck.

  11. Nathan

    August 26, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    What is recommend for people with very high arches and plantar fasciitis?

  12. James

    August 27, 2013 at 1:53 am

    So my personal perspective for what it is worth. I wear western style boots at work, I have for pairs of varying heel heights, and various brands. I find by the weekend my feet are pretty “tired” so I wear converse chuck taylors (which I have worn for decades even before they were fashion)when not at work or needing to wear more dressed up stuff and my feet feel much better for it.

    I also have pretty minimalist runners for working out, they aren’t quite “barefoot” but I have much better technique and less problems then when I used to wear the heavily padded runner I used to use.

  13. Chris

    August 27, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Of everything stated in this article this is probably the most important: “Although research shows reduced impact forces, impact forces do occur so don’t go all “Tarahumara” in week one. Try walking in minimalist shoes for a few weeks before you start running in them. When you do start running keep the volume low and do not increase by more than 10% per week.”
    The majority of the “Barefoot” injuries being reported and maligning the practice are from people wanting to transition to quickly and ignoring this advice.

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