Barefoot running’s big questions after a year

I am now well past the one-year mark.  Perhaps my perspective on some of these questions will evolve over time but I suspect my views on the big questions about afoot running are pretty well settled in. So here we go:

Metro Boston Barefoot Crew (me on left)

Why?

For me it’s mostly about the fun, but also the ease on the knees and hips. Running feels better when you are barefoot.

Don’t your feet hurt?

Running on smooth concrete feels great. Great! Hitting a small pebble wrong can provide a quick ouch, but it only lasts for a few steps. A surface of one-inch chunks of gravel surface is doable. I’ve seen Barefoot Ken Bob glide across a really gnarly parking area, and I followed him across, albeit uncomfortably, putting on a good face. Podiatrists will tell you barefoot on roads is bad but may be OK on trails; in my experience acorns, sticks and roots can be the trickiest obstacles.

What about broken glass?

I’ve run many miles in urban, suburban and rural settings. I’ve very rarely seen glass that could cut your feet. Occasionally I’ve had to avoid some. Once I felt something poking with every strike; I stopped and pulled a small sliver from my sole. That was once and it was nothing, but it’s prudent to watch where you are running.

Does barefoot mean barefoot?

I am always surprised at how many people, upon hearing that I run barefoot, ask if I wear “those funny looking foot gloves.” No, I run with nothing on my feet., you know “barefoot.” I do own a pair of Vibram Bikilas and I think they look pretty cool. I wear them in the gym, through fancy hotel lobbies and occasionally in extreme heat or cold. Do whatever works for you, but I’d suggest keeping an open mind to barefoot barefoot, especially for those just getting started.

How prevalent is barefoot running?

Less than I thought. I’ve been surprised how small the community seems to be. I’ve run in California—the land of what’s new and weird—and engendered strange looks. When I went for a run with Chris McDougall just prior to the Marathon, 100 people showed up to hear him speak and only a dozen or so were truly barefoot. It’s been great in a lot of ways; I’ve been in direct contact with virtually all the big names in barefoot running: Dan Lieberman, Ken Bob Saxton, Jason Robillard (included me in his excellent book for beginning barefooters), Chris McDougall, and Ted McDonald. The good news is that it remains fresh, novel and a topic of interest for many.

The Bottom Line- Is it good for you or bad?
The research inconclusive, actually amazingly so. There are plenty of people both for and against, but there seems to be no solid data to support the theory that barefoot is more healthy or fast, nor does there seem to be evidence that modern shoes reduce injury. Dan Lieberman’s work shows pretty clearly that the force curve increases less steeply for forefoot strikers than for heel strikers. And, there’s pretty strong agreement that barefooters run differently than shod runners, but not one has conclusively connected the scientific dots to more or fewer running injuries.

My own experience is that it’s easier on the knees and hips (although losing weight and cross training helps as well). The only downside for me has been my

Achilles tendons which still nag me now and again.

Bottom bottom line: It really is fun.

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10 Comments on “Barefoot running’s big questions after a year”

  1. Addison Says:

    I am brother in-law to Barefoot Phil, and have had multiple knee surgeries and an blown Achilles surgery. I find barefoot running MUCH easier on knees and hips. A big surprise to me, but a much welcome one.

  2. Art Brennan Says:

    I started out barefoot running in March of 2010 and ran barefoot through the summer of 2010. Now I run about 40 miles a week with five fingers and maybe ten miles or so in running shoes. I stopped with the barefoot running because I kept getting cut by the crushed stone that is used for shoulders on New Hampshire paved roads. I am 64 years old and I can say that running with the five fingers has been really good for me. I had plantar fasciitis in my left heel for at least ten years and it is now completely healed (no pun intended). I do feel a bit closer to the earth as I run in minimal shoes. I am thinking of trying the simple sandals I’ve seen advertised and mentioned in “Born to Run” or in Native American style moccasins. I am curious about other minimal shoes and would like to know what experience other runners have had with them. Last year I ran the Mt. Washington Road Race in the five fingers and ran by best time in many years.

  3. Phil Odence Says:

    Great inputs from both Addison and Art.
    Art, crushed stone is tough, the coarser the tougher and if I was running on a lot of it, I’d go with the minimalist shoes. The Merrell Trail Gloves seem to get pretty good marks, especially from Barefoot Jason Robillard. (I think he’s got some kind of endorsement relationship with the company, but he’s a very straight guy.) As I understand it from Tony Post who runs Vibram, Vibram makes the soles for Merrell (and other minimalist shoes). Although from pictures, I think they are slightly beefier soles than VFFs, the TGs are a more conventional shoe–laces, no toes–with very light sole. Might be worth a look. I’ve got no experience with the huarache sandals, but I saw some guys running around Boston with them before the marathon and they seemed to work.

  4. Manuel R Says:

    Thank you for the post. For a long time I believed that asphalt was the best surface given the fact that it has some “give” as compared to concrete. I found it hard to believe that I would not get injured on the concrete if I went barefoot on it so I never tried it. I just finished a 5 mile barefoot run on smooth concrete and it went great. My feet would probably ache more if I had worn padded zero-drop shoes. I will probably do more barefoot running now since there is a lot of concrete where I live.

  5. Phil Odence Says:

    Thanks, Manuel. That’s what I would have expected. I don’t really notice a difference in give between concrete and asphalt. The give come from your feet and legs.

  6. Barefoot Rob Says:

    I’ve been running soley (no pun intended!) barefoot now for a few months and am up to about an hour, but I really struggle in certain conditions i.e. wet, loose random sharp little stones that seem to be everywhere, and up hills where the concrete is really rough. I am on the verge of giving up as I do not enjoy the fear riddled stoney sections and also am not convince i’ll ever run as fast or carefree as i did in trainers. I’ve read Kenbob’s book and do the technique to my best, but he makes it sound so easy and it really isn’t. Any thoughts/helpful advice?

    • Phil Odence Says:

      I’ve never had a problem with wet. See this post: https://odence.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/are-wet-feet-softer/

      I agree that little stones are a problem and one I’ve never overcome except by avoiding. I’ve run with Ken Bob across a gravel parking lot and managed, but the stray pea-sized stone on an otherwise smooth surface, is a continual annoyance. I rarely run without at least one ouch from a stone.

      A few thoughts: I find that the ouch it typically instantaneous and goes away in 5 or 10 strides. So I just accept it as a down side to the other benefits. I would say it also dictates somewhat where I run; some trails for example, are too problematic for me. An obvious answer, but minimalist shoes may be the right thing for you. They provide enough protection but still feel OK.

      • Barefoot Rob Says:

        Thanks Phil for your comments and honesty around these real issues, add to my initial list -rough concrete, and particularly in the mornings – perhaps i am stiffer having just gotten out of bed, but find i just cant seem to get it right, any thoughts or personal experience of this? This morning for e.g. i went out for a planned hour run on the surface i began learning on (roughest flat concrete i could find) and could barely run at all so ended up doing just 30mins barely running at all. I wondered if it was the morning thing, or whether in a couple of weeks running faster on nice tarmac my body had forgotten the technique – seems unlikely though? Planning to go back to ‘nicer’ concrete for a couple of weeks and if im still unhappy, I’ll switch to minimals as you suggest. Ultimately Ken-bob says it should be fun and this is just frustrating.

  7. Phil Odence Says:

    I am a noontime runner, though sometimes I get out earlier. Haven’t really noticed a difference from the way I react to surfaces depending on time of day. Here are some comments I made about rough surfaces in general:
    https://odence.wordpress.com/2010/04/13/theres-asphalt-and-then-theres-asphalt/
    My only other thought is distance. Have you ramped up too quickly. I started with under half mile runs and it wasn’t until 10 weeks or so that I was doing 3 miles…and I’m a person who doesn’t wear shoes a lot in the summer, so perhaps more inclined. Maybe you could substantially cut back time/distance (maybe augmenting with shod running, though I never did) and start working your way up again.

    • Barefoot Rob Says:

      Thanks Phil, the time of day thing for me may be explained by the differences – morning runs – I roll out of bed at 6.50am and am running by 7am. Evening runs – i’ve warmed up with 20min walk/cycle home from work and head out around 6pm.

      Regards time/distance, maybe, but let me give you my background. I am 28 and a long time athlete – soccer/running/cycling etc, after illness a few years back i switched solely to shod running and thats when the injury’s started – I got plantar fasciitis and despite turning to ‘supportive’ running shoes and custom orthotics 2 years ago, repeated bouts led me to consider barefoot running. May 2012 i did a 1hr28 half marathon, took a month off then switched to bf running. In this period i also purchased vivo bf work shoes and vffs for casual wear to help aid the transition.

      My first BF runs were on the roughest wilderness trail (as per kenbob advice) i could find, too rough and rocky as it happened – i lost around 5 weeks in total resting with various bruises on my feet. I switched to a gravel strip in the city, and then added a rough flat concrete track near by. Started with 20metres on gravel, building gradually to 100 odd. Once i got to 5mins, i then added 5mins every other run, running 2-3 times per week max, up to 60 mins now, then varying between 30-60mins on feel atm. This is over a 4-5month period so feel i have been careful. I have supplemented with cycling to maintain fitness between runs; but would add that i’ve never had serious calf soreness. The runs are too slow to challenge me aerobically or much muscularly (occasional calf soreness is all). Commenting on a point you made previously – i too can sometimes glide over the roughest rockiest glass strewn strip i mention above, but i realised how slowly i was going last week when someone walking overtook me down hill!!

      It may also be worth noting that I get most of my pain in right (‘lead’) foot (not the one that had plantar F interestingly) and it also suffers toe blisters and foot abrasion. Signs i know of poor technique on that foot.

      Also, contrary to Ken Bob advice – I find it easier to get the technique right on good tarmac for these reasons – i am more relaxed; i can listen for foot slapping and focus on minimising impact, i am not limping/losing rythm because of irregularities in surface. Do you or anyone else here find this to be true for them?


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