Barefoot Running

The new controversy in running shoes

After a long, cold winter in the Northeast, April brings changes in weather and daylight welcoming outdoor runners back onto the streets. This year, there is a new concept to consider when deciding what running sneakers to purchase for workouts – or whether to purchase sneakers at all!

Why are we questioning running sneakers?

Running sneakers as we have come to know them: high tech designs helping compensate for our feet misalignments and imperfect gaiting styles, are being blamed for causing more injuries then they correct. 

Research over the past 30 years show barefoot runners including the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico (read, "Born to Run," by Christopher McDougal), do not heel strike when running. The natural foot pattern of barefoot runners is more of a mid to forefoot landing. Barefoot runners feet also naturally pronate (the foot adapts to impact by slightly flattening) as a shock absorption mechanism. Their toes splay as they roll through their foot plant. Since they land mid to forward foot, there is more plantar-flexion at the ankle (toes more in a pointed down position) and less collision forces from the landing on the ankle and lower leg. 

Traditional running shoes as we know them today, were introduced on the market in the 1970’s. The concept was if we make a shoe with a wider and more cushioned heel, it would help reduce landing forces from a heel strike when running, reducing injuries. Another design consideration in the original sneakers was to reduce the movement in the arch. This was supposed to also reduce injuries. 

A number of analysis studies report that while sneakers have become increasingly more technical in design, there has not been a corresponding reduction in injury rates. This has been a significant factor for research interest in barefoot versus shod analysis conducted over the past 10 years.

If more advanced technology has failed to produce less injury in sneakers, what it has enabled, is a more subtle study of force distribution of barefoot and shoed runners. Sparked by this refined information, a new wave of sneakers is gaining in popularity, as is running without sneakers at all.

What is the new technology?

Barefoot shoes are sneakers that mimic barefoot running in one of several ways. The shoe may be designed to mimic the shape of the barefoot. The shoe may be mimicking the movement of the barefoot. The shoe may mimic the feel of the barefoot. 

Vibram FiveFingers shoes are an example of "the feet you wear" design where the shape of a natural barefoot is mimicked. The shoes look like gloves for the feet because each individual toe slips into its own space, similar to a glove with individual areas for each finger. The toes are allowed to splay just like they would if barefoot and in a way that conventional shoes and sneakers prohibit.

The Nike Free shoes are designed for a recreation of the kinematics (strike patterns) of barefoot running. They have extreme flexibility in the sole and upper, yet offer good sole protection for pavement and gravel surfaces where barefoot would be inappropriate. It is designed to train the foot, ankle and lower leg muscles by allowing them to adapt to impact forces in a natural way. The base of the Nike Free has the muscles adapt and strengthen instead of relying on the rigidness of a traditional shoe which is said to cause the muscles to lose this ability and leads to injuries.

The MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology) concept can be found in Sketchers round bottomed sneakers as well as Adidas KB-8 (designed for Kobe Bryant). These shoes mimic the feeling of barefoot running which involves more of a rolling through the arch present in barefoot runners. Although the rounded bottoms may lead to decreased injury and increased efficiency, there is no evidence to show that these shoes will reduce cellulite and increase muscle tone in your butt which is one of the selling points of some models of these type shoes!

Huge numbers of traditional sneakers are constantly being tweaked and redesigned to absorb and displace the impact forces from three times a body’s weight for each foot strike, and combining various levels of stabilization or neutral arch support with various amounts of cushioning and varying technology for providing the cushioning (Asics gel; Nike air, Saucony grid-matrix).

What should individual runners do to solve the dilemma for themselves?

Should you continue to run in sneakers with advanced technology that may actually be doing you more harm than good? Should you switch to one of the newer designs and hedge your bets against injury or reduced performance? Should you just forget about sneakers altogether and allow your foot to adapt to running barefoot?

The answer lies in personal experimentation and self awareness. If you are a runner without any injuries, then I suggest leaving well enough alone and continuing the sneaker technology you have been using. However, if you are satisfied but interested in possibly getting faster, then read on.

If you have recurrent injuries, you may be a candidate for experimenting with a newer design. The studies are showing that the newer designs do appear to result in more ergonomic efficiency and therefore result in less energy expenditure for the same effort level (this is where the make you faster comes into play!) As to whether the newer designs actually result in less injury rates, is yet to be demonstrated. We need years of study to see if this pattern evolves, but for most of us as individuals, we can’t wait for that to happen and we will want to make a decision now. Personal experimentation is the way to go.

Here is one final note on the controversy. In the past 10 years, there has been a renaissance in running technique. Where heel striking and long strides involving the foot reaching forward beyond the body was once the advice of running coaches, now techniques like Chi Running and POSE running are replacing that thinking. These running methods involve retraining running so that each landing takes place directly under your body, and landing is on the mid-foot with a long, torso and a pawing of the ground as if you are pulling it behind you as you run.

With a retraining of technique towards mid-foot landing and maintaining neutral alignment from the foot through to the top of the head, a reduction of injury, an increase in running efficiency, and an increase in pace may result less from the shoes on your feet and more from natural body mechanics and your own body awareness! 

Ultimately it will be a personal experiment, but now you are armed with an increased knowledge of the underlying mechanics so you can be a savvy sneaker consumer and an awesome runner! 

Judy Torel is a USAT coach, personal trainer, nutrition consultant and psychotherapist. Her office is located in Planet Fitness, Loudonville. She can be reached at 469.0815 or



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