Barefoot Running – Should I Try It?

Be it the NY Times Best-Seller, Born To Run, or the person wearing five-toed shoes next to you on the BART train, it seems the idea of barefoot walking and running has sparked our collective interest.  So how do you know if it’s right for you?


The most often talked about advantages of barefoot running concern the foot’s position as it contacts the ground. Studies show that barefoot runners tend to contact the ground with the ball of the foot first, in contrast to the heel first contact often seen in shoe runners.

Additionally, barefoot runners tend to use quicker, shorter strides than those running in shoes. Finally, the calf muscles in barefoot runners have been shown to “gear up” in preparation for impact before the foot touches the ground.  So what does all of that mean and is it helpful?

Proponents of barefoot running contend that these changes may help to reduce injury. Specifically, barefoot runners may be exposed to decreased impact forces—stress the foot and leg experience when contacting the ground—than their shoe-wearing peers.  However, there are always two sides to every story and not all researchers agree that a strong correlation exists between impact forces and injury.


Many people who typically wear running shoes have concerns about starting a barefoot running program. What if I cut my feet, get sunburned, or my injury returns?  Some researchers have expressed concern that runners who are used to running in shoes may continue to use a heel strike pattern when running barefoot, which could increase impact forces to the legs and back.  Furthermore, due to the contact point at the ball of the foot, new barefoot runners may be at heightened risk for developing calf strains and Achilles tendon overuse issues.

Take-away and Tips:

So now that you have a little more information, should you take the plunge?

  • Neither barefoot or shoe running have studies on their side which show a decreased incidence of running injuries.
  • Barefoot running studies do show improvement in the factors which may lead to injury, but because the field is new, there are no studies on the safest and most effective method of beginning a barefoot running training program.
  • If you decide to give those five-toed shoes a try, begin slowly as you would with any new sport or training program.
  • Give your body time to adapt to the new pattern.
  • Start on softer surfaces, such as dirt and grass, and be mindful of where you step!
  • If you currently use motion control shoes or orthotics to manage an injury, consult a medical professional before embarking on your barefoot adventure.

For more information, check out the reference list below or click on the links for some fun, barefoot-style reading.  For more information on safe running practices check out the Sports Wellness Center’s Running Clinic at CPMC. (founded by Ken Bob Saxton)


  1. JAm Podiatr Med Assoc 2011 May-June; 101 (3): 231-46
  2. Robbins SE, Hanna AM: Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations. MedSci Sports Exercise 19: 148, 1987
  3. Koplan JP, Powell KE, Sikes RK: An epidemiologic study of the benefits and risks of running. JA MA 248: 3118, 1982.
  4. McKeon KA, Manson NA: Musculoskeletal injury in the masters runner. ClinJ SportMed 16: 149, 2006
  5. Van Middelkoop M et al: Prevalence and incidence of lower extremity injuries in male marathon runners. Scand J Med Sci Sports 18: 140, 2008
  6. Divert C, et al Mechanical comparison of barefoot and shod running. Int J Sports Med 26:593, 2005
  7. Squadrone et al Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in expert barefoot runners J Sports Med Phys Fitness 49: 6, 2009
  8. DeWit et al Biomechanical analysis of the stance phase during barefoot and shod running. J Biomech 33: 269, 2000
  9. Lieberman D et al Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot vs. shod runners. Nature 463: 531, 2010
  10. 10. Stacoff A Lateral stability in sideward cutting movements. Med Sci Sports Exercise 28: 350, 1996
  11. 11. Robbins, Gouw Protective sensation of the plantar aspect of the foot. Foot Ankle Int 14:347, 1993

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