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Is Barefoot and Minimalist Running Supported by Research?

Posted by on May 9, 2012 | 24 Comments

Is barefoot and minimalist shoe running supported by empirical evidence? In other words, do we have science on our side? This is a question that springs up quite often. Barefoot running skeptics ask the question. The barefoot-curious ask the question. Even some of us that have been doing this for awhile ask the question.

The answer is… sort of.

The holy grail of research would be some sort of large, representative-sampled double-blind longitudinal experiment that compared the injury rates and/or efficiency of barefoot runners and shod runners over a long period of time. As of May 2012, this research has not been conducted.

Instead, we have a lot of small studies that hint toward the benefits of barefoot and minimalist shoe running. That leaves us in a strange position when people ask if this is legit.

Anecdotal evidence certainly supports the premise, but anecdotal evidence tends to be selective in nature. For example, we only hear from the people that have successfully transitioned to barefoot or minimalism. We have no idea how many people tried and failed. Because of this serious limitation, we can’t use anecdotal evidence as the lone rationale for barefoot and minimalist shoe running.

So what about the research that hints at the benefits? Here’s a rundown a few of us collected and posted on the Runners World Barefoot Running Forum a few years back:

Peer-reviewed research/articles

This isn’t an exhaustive list and it hasn’t been updated with research that has been published over the last year, but a quick skimming of the titles will provide an idea of the research that has been conducted. If you happen to know of any peer-reviewed published research covering barefoot running or related topics that ISN’T listed above, please leave the link and/or citation in the comments.

The sheer volume of this list would seem to suggest that science definitely supports barefoot and minimalist shoe running. It is important to note that most of these studies have limited sample sizes or other methodological flaws that limit their generalizability. Some are literature reviews. Some are published in questionable journals or websites. At the very least, it highlights the need for further research.

From a practical standpoint, a prudent consumer would approach barefoot and minimalist shoe running with a degree of skepticism. While some people experience a profound reduction in injury rates and a dramatic increase in the intrinsic joy of running, some people also experience overuse injuries and do not enjoy the feeling of the skin-on-ground contact.

My advice- educate yourself. Carefully examine anything and everything you read about barefoot and minimalist shoe running. I’ve written about some of these issues from a skeptic’s perspective:

If you do decide to start, be smart about it. Most people have to go through a transition period to allow their body to adapt to the new stresses of a changed running gait. The exact methods you choose to help learn can be a bit confusing, so I’d recommend this progression:

Where Should You Begin?

Should you get to the point where you decide to use resources that aren’t free, here’s a quick rundown on some great options that I’m familiar with:

Which method should I use?

In conclusion, educate yourself. Remain skeptical. Experiment. Have fun. ;-)

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24 Comments

  1. Stephen
    May 11, 2012

    Some really interesting comments here and at some stage I need to write my thoughts on my blog http://www.naked-runner.com but for now I just thought I would mention my experience so far.

    My gut feeling and no study here is that it can be easy to get injured running barefoot, well I did and I am a fairly competent runner. I managed to pick up extensor tendinitis, which was on the top of the foot. very painful and I could not walk for close to a month (Interestingly I could run albeit with a little discomfort)

    I have now got back into the rhythm of running again, with a 10k at the weekend at the same speed as with my normal shoes.

    Yesterday at the track I decided to take off the shoes completely, rather than run in my minimalist shoes to help the transition. The feeling was fantastic and it was like being liberated!

    For me that is part of the fun

    • Bare Lee
      May 11, 2012

      Stephen, some would suggest that you got the injury precisely because you didn’t go all in, but rather ran in minimalist shoes. I did manage to get a tiny stress fracture without using minimalist shoes, when I jumped from 5 to 10 miles before my feet were ready for it, so it’s not only a matter of pure barefoot versus minimalist shoes. However, in your case, it may be worth considering this possibility, especially since you’re running a blog that will influence others’ decision on how to ‘transition.’ I think a lot of veteran runners who go the minimalist route have trouble because their legs and aerobic base allow them to do decent mileage immediately, before their feet have built up the strength and conditioning to handle it.

  2. Wiglaf
    May 10, 2012

    As usual, Craig Payne shows his bias. He takes a barefoot runner’s quote (yours) out of context and all his podiatrist friends join in to fire up the straw man:

    http://www.podiatry-arena.com/podiatry-forum/showpost.php?p=261258&postcount=273

    • Jason
      May 10, 2012

      I’m probably about the only barefoot runner that actually agrees with a fair amount of the stuff they post in that thread… too bad the good doctor didn’t take the time to actually read my posts.

      He complains about our obvious lack of objectivity… some would call that irony. :-)

      • Wiglaf
        May 10, 2012

        Yup. “Irony” isn’t just a description for my cast skillet.

      • Paul Wallis
        May 10, 2012

        Jason,

        I would tred carefully on the poditry forums. I posted my thoughts that it was probably more reasonable for someone to run without shoes, given the fact that there is no evidence to support running in regular running shoes. I was acussed of supporting the naturalistic fallacy (anything natural is better), when in fact what I was simply saying was it’s probably better to stick to the default (barefeet) if the evidence is lacking in the positive assertion (running is better in shoes). Saying that this is a naturalistic fallacy is a strawman arguement. They then resorted to ad hominem attacks and name calling, and banned me from the forum.

        Being a health professional as well I was throughly appalled by their lack of professionalism on this topic, or even their lack of courtesy. Most of them seem to be biased and not willing to challenge the current “shoe” paradigm.

        You can see starting on page 7 (Horseman42)…

        http://www.podiatry-arena.com/podiatry-forum/showthread.php?t=64746&page=7

        • Bare Lee
          May 11, 2012

          I looked at your exchange Paul. It’s a good example of professional gate-keeping. They’re probably insecure because they know only the flunkies in med school go into podiatry. Then to have a non-podiatrist debate them logically, it’s probably just all too much. How dare you! Then one of them brings up the old ‘we no longer walk on natural surfaces’ bug-a-boo. Another silly preconception. Anyone who’s ever been to a village knows that people want to walk on hard, compacted paths. It’s more efficient, so less effort. You were fortunate to be banished from their silly/scary kingdom.

  3. joohneschuh
    May 10, 2012

    Let´s assume that barefoot running is NOT better and science will prove it. Would you stop running barefoot?

    Or what if there will be proof that it is REALLY better. Who would switch to barefoot running only because of the scientific proof?

    Some would, probably, but certainly not everyone. Think of smoking, overeating, drinking, not exercising…

    I repeatedly ask myself: Why am I trying to build a community of barefoot runners in Germany? I am not so much into Jason´s mission of “I want to educate as many people as possible about how to run better.” I´m too skeptical about the “what is better” part.

    But what I know for sure is that barefoot running is fun and sharing this with others is even more fun, not to speak of running together!

  4. Alex
    May 9, 2012

    I think it’s important to note that there’s a distinction to be made between “Is it research based?” and “Does it work?” Most people, I think, primarily (if not exclusively) care about the latter point, while we on the internet are left to fret over the former. In my mind, something should be the former before we try and find out the latter, otherwise we’re doomed to endless experimentation, shouting out N=1 while getting nowhere.

  5. Brian S
    May 9, 2012

    The other thing to note is form. Through reading and personal experience I think form has as much to do with injuries as the shoe or lack there of. How do you study or document the form of a runner and the injury rates related to that?

  6. bryan
    May 9, 2012

    I appreciate the encouragement to stay skeptical. People often ask me about barefoot and/or minimalist shoe running and the first thing I say is, if you’re not getting injured and you’re running as much as you would like to be, don’t change a thing. This is all a last ditch effort for me as I was constantly getting injured when wearing bulkier running shoes. I did not take to barefoot running either though I think I gave it a fair shake. I think I’ve found a sweet spot with minimalist shoes (I only run on trails so I find inov-8s to be the best because that’s what they specialize in and their tread is spectacular) but even merrell trail gloves a re bit too minimal for me.

    Everyone’s different and I really appreciate the proceed with caution approach, but I am also very skeptical of the if-you’re-getting-hurt-you’re-not-doing-it-right or you’ve-done-too-much-too-soon rhetoric. Again, everyone’s body is different and I think each individual knows their own body best. I appreciate your commitment to healthy skepticism and encouragement for each person to be in touch with the specific needs of their own body. I thought transition shoes would be just that for me, but now I feel like I don’t need to transition out of something that’s not currently causing me any pain or injury.

  7. Barefoot Grad Student
    May 9, 2012

    Thanks for the post! I am constantly searching for good articles on barefoot running and hadn’t heard of several of these!
    Here are a few others that I think should be included in the list:

    Cheung, R. T., M. Y. Wong, and G. Y. Ng. 2011. “Effects of Motion Control Footwear on Running: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Sports Sciences 29 (12) (Sep):1311-9.

    Daoud, A. I., G. J. Geissler, F. Wang, J. Saretsky, Y. A. Daoud, and D. E. Lieberman. 2012. “Foot Strike and Injury Rates in Endurance Runners: A Retrospective Study.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (Jan 3).

    Jenkins, David W., and David J. Cauthon. 2011. “Barefoot Running Claims and Controversies A Review of the Literature.” Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association 101 (3) (MAY-JUN):231-46.

    Lieberman, D. E., M. Venkadesan, W. A. Werbel, A. I. Daoud, S. D’Andrea, I. S. Davis, R. O. Mang’eni, and Y. Pitsiladis. 2010. “Foot Strike Patterns and Collision Forces in Habitually Barefoot Versus Shod Runners.” Nature 463 (7280) (Jan 28):531-5.

    Some are from the last year, so maybe you’ve already heard of them, but I thought they were worth mentioning! (Sorry, I don’t know how to attach the link here)

    I always enjoying reading your posts, so thanks again and keep up the great work!

  8. Rob Y
    May 9, 2012

    Also based on a sample of one, I can conclude that the single longer distances I run, the more mileage I run in a week or the rougher terrain I run that the more protective shoe I use the more pleasurable the experience. ;) Too each their own, our own running experiences vary widely. If I were not a career ultrarunner (almost 20 years) and putting in relatively high weekly mileages, or I didn’t enjoy running XC on often very brutal terrain I might agree that going unshod or very minimally shod would be totally adequate. You can get away with a lot on a low mileage diet! :) Perhaps someday…

    • Bare Lee
      May 9, 2012

      Right Rob, I withhold judgment because you’re doing something very different from me (although I have done very long distance cycling, so I can relate to the projected pleasures of ultrarunning). You’re also coming at this as from a serious, veteran runner’s perspective, while I’m coming at it as a barefooter who just has basic fitness goals (at least for the time being). I am going to try my first trail run this week or next, though, so we’ll see if the pleasure principle is the same.

      • Rob Y
        May 9, 2012

        All I know is that I would be extremely limited in the types of terrain or activities I could do if I limited myself to barefoot or very minimally shod running. Why put limits on yourself? Seems silly to me. Don’t see, can’t see anything inherently wrong with wearing enough shoe to provide adequate underfoot protection. Plenty examples of primitive cultures past and present who wear some sort of sandals or moccasins or at least are from a lifestyle where they’d been going everywhere barefoot from childbirth.

        • Bare Lee
          May 9, 2012

          The only reason to put a limit is for training or pleasure purposes. I currently get all the training I need barefoot, but unlike you, I have very modest goals. If I lived near technical trails, I would consider shoes. But I might also decide I prefer to run barefoot on easier terrains, because I really really like being barefoot. Not from a purist perspective, or from some misguided perspective about ‘ancient’ or ‘primitive’ peoples, but from one of pure enjoyment. Plus I have hot feet, so shoes feel uncomfortable to me unless it’s cold.

    • Charlie Mercer
      May 10, 2012

      I agree with Rob that wearing a built-up shoe increases pleasure. That’s why Jason has been seen not only in the Bare Access in the 24hr. but also now in Colorado in the MixMaster. So even hard-core barefooters seem to gravitate toward a more hard-core shoe when the elements/distance get a bit fierce. All I know from my experience is that I ran in built-up shoes for 20 years, and I built up some pretty good injuries. After 3 years of PF, a Podiatrist gave me hard orthotics and it didn’t help. I switched to FiveFingers in ’08 and it cured it. But it made ultrarunning miserable. Now I’m in the Altra Lone Peak and I’m digging the zero drop + rock plate + cushion. There has to be a balance in there somewhere. I love zero drop for the form enhancement, and I love cushion/rock plate for gnarly trails. I work on the form going for walks around the block, but on the trails I don’t want to think about anything, I just want to stampede…that’s my rambling thoughts for today…

  9. Paul Wallis
    May 9, 2012

    Jason,

    I respectfully understand where you’re comming from here. It is the usual thoughts of most people who are unfamilar with barefoot running and being barefoot in general. However I believe that proving that barefoot running is supported by science is the incorrect way of looking at the issue.

    We already know for a fact that people have been running and living for millions of years without running shoes. Then all of the sudden 50 years ago we developed the modern day running shoe, that’s suposively “better”. Where is the evidence that shod running is safe, or supported by science? Where is it supported that heel stiking is safe? Where are the studies on that?

    What people need to realize is that being barefoot is default and it’s the shoe companies that owe us the research to support their claims. It’s nice that we have some research to support barefoot/minimalist running (in fact it actually just proves the point even more) but it’s largely not necessary. The burden of proof is on the shoe manufacturers as they are the ones that are making a positive claim against the default position, and it’s logical to not run in shoes until they can produce the science to back-up that it is better then being barefoot. Until I see that research I’m going to stick to the default.

    • Bare Lee
      May 9, 2012

      Couldn’t agree with you more Paul, and very well put. I use a similar line of (evolutionary) reasoning when I’m trying to break down shoddies’ preconceptions. The onus is on the new and invented, not the natural and evolved. Kind of like processed junk versus whole, organic food. Not that I’m a Luddite, but it’s good to keep the defaults in mind when taking on something novel.

  10. Bare Lee
    May 9, 2012

    Based on a sample of one, I can conclude conclusively, and without fear of self-contradiction, that barefoot running is more pleasurable than shod running. That’s all the science I need.

  11. Brian G
    May 9, 2012

    This is a fantastic post, Jason.

    It is critical when discussing the benefits of barefoot/minimalism vs. the standard running shoe to be *excruciatingly* precise regarding the topic and to qualify every statement. How exactly is it better? Compared to what? Under what precise conditions and for what goals/purposes? What are the limitations and unknowns? What firm, clear evidence do we have to backup either side’s claims? Otherwise discussions always devolve into acrimonious shouting matches.

    BTW, one single study does not make science. Rather, it is a broad set of studies under numerous conditions over a period of time that consistently point in a single direction which provide good evidence for or against a theory.

    • Ken S.
      May 9, 2012

      Excellent Points that are often over-looked.

      It is also important to understand that not all peer reviewed scientific studies are of equal quality and of equal scientific value. When evaluating a study, it is necessary to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the design and methodology. In other words, it’s not enough to just read the abstract and start quoting it as evidence to support or refute an assertion.

      In my opinion, if you can’t do a critical evaluation of scientific study, you really should not be quoting at all. Because you really don’t know what you’re talking about.

      • ted
        May 9, 2012

        Also a great point. So one Journal selected the research to be published. How many Journals denied the research?

    • ted
      May 9, 2012

      Best reply yet.