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:
- Arnadottir, S.A., Mercer, V.S. (2000). Effects of Footwear on Measurements of Balance and Gait in Women Between the Ages of 65 and 93 Years. Physical Therapy, 80(1), 17-27.
- Bergmann G, Kniggendorf H, Graichen F, Rohlmann A (1995). Influence of shoes and heel strike on the loading of the hip joint. Journal of Biomechanics 28, 817-827
- Burge, C. (2001). Comments on Barefoot Running. Sportscience 5(3).
- Burkett, L.N., Kohrt, M., Buchbinder, R. (1985). Effects of shoes and foot orthotics on VO2 and selected frontal plane kinematics. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 17, 158-163
- Clarke, T.E., Frederick, E.C., Cooper, L.B. (1983). Effects of shoe cushioning upon ground reaction forces in running. International Journal of Sports Medicine 4, 247-251.
- Clinghan, R.J., Arnold, G.P., Cochrane, L.A., Abboud, R.J. (2008). Do you get value for money when you buy an expensive pair of running shoes?. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 42, 189-193.
- Craig R., Parker J., & Callister R. (2008). Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence based?. British Journal of Sports Medicine. Published Online First: 18 April 2008.
- Crevier, L.M. (2009). Running barefoot: A natural step for reducing injuries?. The Journal of Muskuloskeletal Medicine. 26(7).
- De Clecq, D., Aerts, P. (1994). The mechanical characteristics of the human heel pad during foot strike in running: An in vivo cineradiographic study. Journal of Biomechanics, Volume 27, Issue 10, Pages 1213-1222.
- De C0ck, A., Vanrenterghem, J., Willems, T., Witvrouw, D., De Clecq, D. (2008). The trajectory of the centre of pressure during barefoot running as a potential measure for foot function. Gait & Posture, Volume 27, Issue 4, Pages 669-675.
- Djulbegovic B, Lacevic M, Cantor A, Fields KK, Bennett CL, Adams JR, Kuderer NM (2000). The uncertainty principle and industry-sponsored research. Lancet 356, 635-638.
- Flaherty RF (1994). Running economy and kinematic differences among running with the foot shod, with the foot bare, and with the bare foot equated for weight. Microform Publications, International Institute for Sport and Human Performance, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon
- Frederick EC (1986). Kinematically mediated effects of sports shoe design: a review. Journal of Sports Sciences 4, 169-184
- Froncioni, J. (2006, August 22). Athletic footwear and running injuries. Article posted to http://www.quickswood.com/my_weblog/2006/08/athletic_footwe.html
- Hamill, J. & Bates, B.T. (1988). A kinetic evaluation of the Effects of in vito loading on running shoes. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 10(2): 47-53.
- Hart, P.M., Smith, D.R. (2008). Preventing running injuries through barefoot activity: sometimes “dressing out” means not putting on your shoes. The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. 79(4): 50-54.
- Hoffman, M.D. (1905). Conclusions drawn from a comparative study of the feet of barefooted and shoe wearing peoples. American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery, 3(2).
- Kerrigan, D.C., et.al. (2009). The effect of running shoes on lower extremity joint torques. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 1(12). 1058-1063.
- Kirn, T.F. (2009). Running injuries not reduced by gradual training. Internal Medicine News. FindArticles.com. 18 Dec, 2009. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb4365/is_6_41/ai_n29433090/
- Marti, B. (1998). Relationships between running injuries and running shoes- results of a study of 5,000 participants of a 16km run. The Shoe in Sport. Chicago: Year Book Medical Publishers. 256-265.
- Morieux, D.C., Freychat, P., Baly, L., Mayer, F., Belli, A. (2008). Barefoot-shod running differences: shoe or mass effect?. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 29(6).
- Rao, U.B. & and Joseph, B. (1992). The Influence of Footwear on the prevalence of flat foot. The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, 74B(4), 525-527.
- Richards, C.E., Magin, P.J., & Callister, R. (2008). Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence based?. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 43, 159-162.
- Robbins, S. & Waked, E. (1997). Hazards of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 31, 299-303.
- Robbins, S.E., & Hanna, A.M. (1987). Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 19(2), 148-156.
- Robbins, S.E., Gouw, G.J., & Hanna, A.M. (1987). Running-related injury prevention through innate impact-moderating behavior. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 21(2), 130-139.
- Robbins, S.E., Hanna, A.M., & Gouw, G. J. (1988) Overload protection: avoidance response to heavy plantar surface loading. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 20(1), 85-92.
- Robbins SE, Gouw GJ, Hanna AM (1989). Running-related injury prevention through innate impact-moderating behavior. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 21, 130-139
- Robbins, S.E. & Gouw, G.J. (1990). Athletic footwear and chronic overloading. Sports Medicine, 9(2), 76-85.
- Robbins, S.E. & Gouw, G.J. (1991). Athletic footwear: unsafe due to perceptual illusions. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 23(2), 217-224.
- Robbins, S.E., Gouw, G.J., McClaran, J., & Waked, E. (1993). Protective sensation of the plantar aspect of the foot. Foot & Ankle, 14(6), 347-352.
- Robbins, S.E., Waked, E., and Rappel, R.. (1993). Ankle taping improves proprioception before and after exercise in young men. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 29(4), 242-247.
- Robbins S, Waked E (1997). Hazards of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear. British Journal of Sports Medicine 31, 299-303.
- Rome, K., Hancock, D., Poratt, D. (2008). Barefoot running and walking: the pros and cons based on current evidence. The New Zealand Medical Journal, 121.
- Shulman, S.B (1949). Survey in China and India of feet that have never worn shoes. The Journal of the National Association of Chiropodists, 49, 26-30.
- Squadrone, R., Gallozzi, C. (2009). Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced barefoot runners. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 49(1), 6-13.
- Stacoff, A., Steger, J., Stüssi, E., & Reinschmidt, C. (1996). Lateral stability in sideward cutting movements. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 28(3), 350-358.
- Stefanyshyn DJ, Nigg BM (2000). Influence of midsole bending stiffness on joint energy and jump height performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 32, 471-476
- Stewart, S.F. (1972). Footgear– Its History, Uses and Abuses. Clinical rthopaedics and Related Research, 88, 119-130.
- Vormittag, K., Calonje, R. Briner, W.W. (2009). Foot and ankle injuries in the barefoot sport. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 8(5), 262-266.
- Waddington, G., Adams, R. (2003). Football boot insoles and sensitivity to extent of ankle inversion movement. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 37, 170-175.
- Warburton, M. (2001). Barefoot Running. Sportscience 5(3).
- Zipfel, B. & Berger, L.R. (2007). Shod versus unshod: The emergence of forefoot pathology in modern humans?. The Foot, 17, 205 – 213.
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:
- Myths surrounding barefoot running
- Misconceptions of barefoot running, shoes, and the industry
- Things to avoid when you start barefoot or minimalist shoe running
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:
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:
In conclusion, educate yourself. Remain skeptical. Experiment. Have fun.