The popularity of barefoot running has exploded in recent years. But why? Are the claimed benefits real? And should everyone try it? MF finds out.

By Nathan Ditum.

There’s no better way to track the recent explosion of barefoot running than by looking at shoe sales. That may sound contradictory — but it doesn’t mean all shoes. Matt Wallden can provide some illuminating sales figures for starters. Wallden, a British osteopath, was writing a chapter on rehabilitation for a natural medicine textbook when he first saw Vibram FiveFingers shoes. This was in early 2006, just months after the thin-soled shoe with individual toe-pockets had been released in the US.

“I’d read a lot of research suggesting that being barefoot is the best way to rehabilitate a foot that’s flat or weak,” he says, adding that gym rules and safety risks make such training impractical for most people. “When I saw the shoe, I thought, ‘That is the perfect solution’.”

A few months later, Wallden became the exclusive UK distributor of Vibram FiveFingers. His first shipment arrived in late 2007 and sold out in a few weeks. Sales of Vibrams in the UK doubled every year after that and this year look set to triple. And in the US, which has a two-year head start, the shoe’s success is even bigger.  “Vibram FiveFingers account for nearly 10 percent of the running market now in the US,” says Wallden. “In terms of global production, about four million pairs were made this year, and nearly three-and-a-half million of them are in the US.”

Australia has followed suit. Sally Lynch of Sydney company Barefootinc (barefootinc.com.au) says they sold 25,000 pairs of Vibrams in 2011 — a figure set to double, such is the demand.

Feet of Endurance

What’s propelling sales of FiveFingers, and encouraging other manufacturers to introduce shoes based on a minimalist design, is the rise in popularity of barefoot running. Following the publication of Christopher McDougall’s 2009 part-science, part-philosophy best-seller Born To Run, large numbers of people are trying barefoot, encouraged by a growing dissatisfaction with traditional running shoes.

“We owe McDougall,” says Roy Wallack, a long-time fitness journalist who wrote one of these how-to guides, Barefoot Running Step By Step, with guru Ken Bob Saxton, aka Barefoot Ken Bob. “There would be no market for our book without Born To Run.” Since the success of McDougall’s book, he says barefoot running has become “huge” in the United States. “Now every runner knows about barefoot running. They don’t all do it, but they know that it’s not done by crazy, long-haired vegetarian hippies any more. It’s a tool that can be used by every runner. They know that when they get injured, this might be the only real option for them.”

Arch Enemy

It’s this that’s at the heart of the pro-barefoot argument: that barefoot running is better for you than running in shoes. The foot, the argument goes, is a super-sensory organ capable of giving the body detailed feedback to aid co-ordination, balance and speed — except when it’s encased in gel and rubber.

“Most running shoes allow a full range of motion just at the ankle joint, [but] going barefoot allows movement at all 32 joints in the foot,” explains Wallden. “And you’ve got 32 joints for a reason. Also, if you’re wearing a supportive shoe, only two of the 34 muscles that are attached to the foot will be working to their full capacity, and that’s the calf muscles. So you’re missing conditioning 32 muscles.”

And it’s not just that shoes can leave your feet in bad shape — they can also cause injuries. Cushioned running shoes promote a heavy heel-strike technique (as opposed to the softer-footed gait barefoot runners adopt) which greatly increases the stresses placed on knees, hips and ankles. This is knees and ankles. This is why Wallack and Saxton describe heel-striking as “a prescription for injuries”.

Wallack discovered this in 2004 when he happened across Saxton’s website, which hosts articles and information about barefoot running (it’s still available at therunningbarefoot.com), while researching the forefoot-striking Pose method of running. A phone call later, the pair were standing by the beach outside Ken’s apartment. “I said, ‘What do we do?’ and he said, ‘Just take your shoes off and follow me’. And I did, for about five kays.”

Wallack had brought a video camera so the pair could analyse their gait after the run. Even compared with the forefoot Pose method, Wallack was surprised at how pain-free barefoot felt. “I’d been running since uni, so I had the usual litany of injuries,’ he says. “The feeling [of barefoot] was very smooth. I was shocked, utterly shocked, that it felt good.”

 Second Opinion

However, the claims about barefoot running’s injury-reduction powers are not established as fact just yet. Sports podiatrist Ian Griffiths says that while he’s certainly not anti-barefoot, he’s not convinced the evidence supports the fix-all claims made on its behalf. “Normally when people ask me about barefoot running it’s because they’ve read that it reduces injury risk. As far as I’m concerned, it’s black and white: we simply don’t know.”

That isn’t to say there’s no evidence at all. Two studies in particular are cited by the pro-barefoot camp — one led by Dr Casey Kerrigan in 2009 which found joint torques to be lower in barefoot versus shod runners, and the other led by Dr Daniel Lieberman from 2010, which found barefoot runners generated lower collision forces than shod runners thanks to their modified technique.

But both were relatively small studies (68 subjects for the first study, just 16 directly compared subjects for the second) and Griffiths says it will take more to be sure. “What we need are prospective studies,” he argues, a sentiment echoed by Lieberman himself on his Harvard website. “You need a big group of people to have statistical power, and you need them ideally to be all injury-free, and they need to be matched for pretty much everything: age, weight, fitness level, weekly distance. You’ve got to have a control for these other factors, because running injuries are multi-factorial. It’s not just about the shoe.”

Griffiths emphasises the practical problems of arranging for such a study, admitting that it would be “nearly impossible to do”. But Wallden suggests that sceptics may be looking at the whole thing askew: given that humans (“Or actually

I should say hominids”) have been running for millions of years and wearing thick-soled trainers for less than 50, the burden of proof lies with the shoe rather than the foot. “I think the ‘evolved barefoot’ argument is fairly logical,” he says. “Most people can grasp that straight away.”

 Sole Survivors

In fact, while there’s limited evidence about barefoot reducing injuries, there’s even less about running shoes doing the same. We know this thanks to Dr Craig Richards, a researcher at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales. In 2008, he conducted a review of all existing research to find “controlled trials or systematic reviews” that evaluated the effectiveness of cushioned heels and orthotics in reducing injury. They failed to find a single one.

The increasing realisation that shoes are the newcomer with something to prove may be the key to barefoot running becoming more widely accepted. It’s already had an effect on some long-standing members of the shoe industry. Steven Bloor was a podiatrist for 25 years before setting up his own orthotics company. He used to believe that almost everyone’s feet needed artificial corrective measures to function properly, but thanks to the increased exposure, barefoot running, and to a read of Born To Run, his thinking has turned around entirely. “I now believe very strongly that most feet, given a chance, can support themselves,” he says. He now sells far fewer orthotics, and stocks Vibram FiveFingers and Vivo Barefoot shoes.

 Baby Steps

But if barefoot running itself is safe, there is a near-universal agreement that transitioning from shoes to barefoot can be dangerous. “Everyone I’ve seen who’s been injured has done too much too soon,” reports Griffiths, citing calf problems and metatarsal fractures as the most common injuries. The issue stems from the shift in technique. “As soon as you get up on your forefoot, you immediately increase the tension through the muscles through the back of your leg, your calf muscle complex and your achilles tendon. If you’ve been heel-striking for 10 years and suddenly decide to run barefoot, the calf and the achilles just haven’t had the time to adapt.”

Wallden agrees, pointing out that bad — or simply novice — barefoot technique can further hinder adaptation. As a result, Vibram recommends a formula of gradually increasing your barefoot or FiveFingers running distance over a number of weeks, starting with 10 percent of your weekly distance. Even then, Wallden advises caution. “I’ve said to Vibram that I think that’s actually a little too quick, because connective tissues in the body will take between six and 18 months to adapt. It’s not quite true that anyone can adapt with a generic formula like that, which is saying that within 10 or maybe 20 weeks you can be fully adapted. Some people will still get injured with that formula.”

Clearly barefoot should be approached with caution. But with its benefits well established at this stage, here’s an more important point: barefoot isn’t the end of the road, just the first step in a wider acceptance of the fact that running shoes have been getting it wrong for years. And if the first step is taking off the old shoes, then the second is designing new shoes that are “better” than barefoot.

Joint Account

The expert in this field is Dr Casey Kerrigan, a former Harvard researcher who published a study on joint torques in barefoot versus shod runners. Kerrigan, who pioneered research into gait in the mid-1980s, realised around 2000 that she was on to something big — namely that shoes were affecting joints far more than anyone had previously thought.

First, she and her colleagues published a paper linking high-heeled shoes to joint torques associated with knee osteoarthritis. They then started looking at other types of shoe. “I started seeing that there are certain facets of footwear that were increasing these joint torques,” she says.

Kerrigan was beginning to get a sense that shoes could cause injury. However, her next discovery was even less intuitive, so much so that it still hasn’t received wide recognition — exactly when they could cause injury. “Everyone had assumed that these peak forces occurred at impact,” she says, explaining that actually “all the forces that lead to injury are occurring when the foot is fully planted–in mid-stance in running.”

 Bare Facts

Kerrigan describes this as “a huge ‘Aha!’ moment”. And it’s why she’s convinced we need to look past barefoot to something new, even though she’s more aware than anybody of barefoot’s benefits. “Every time I did a study looking at a different type of footwear, I always used barefoot as my control. So I knew what the effect of barefoot was against all this other footwear.”

But, crucially, these same mid-stance forces are still present in barefoot runners, merely reduced. “I think [barefoot] was the first step, showing that running-shoe design is flawed,” she says. “So now we should redesign running shoes.”

And that’s exactly what Kerrigan has done, leaving her position at the University of Virginia to launch OESH (oeshshoes.com), a new, non-minimalist shoe with a strong carbon fibre midsole that enables it to bend and reshape with each step. “It provides compliance in mid-stance, meaning the sole compresses and then releases in tune with when the forces that cause arthritis, stress fractures and all injuries are at their greatest. It reduces forces, reduces torque, compared with barefoot.”

Currently OESH (“shoe” inside out and the wrong way round) makes only walking shoes and only for women, who are more prone to osteoarthritis than men. But Kerrigan has plans for both runners and men’s shoes, and when they do arrive, Wallack says he’s keen to try them.

“I have an open mind,” he says. “If I find something better than barefoot, I’ll shout it from the rooftops.”

 Shoe Shine

While barefoot might not be the solution to all running’s problems, is it worth trying? According to Griffiths, it’s up to the individual. “If you’re running injury-free, with whatever technique or whatever shoe, and you’ve never felt better,” the podiatrist says, “you’d be an idiot to try barefoot running. The number one thing I see that injures runners is change. But if you’re injured and nothing else has worked, then what have you got to lose?”

Wallden is still cautious about how people transition to barefoot, but continues to emphasise its potential benefits. “Pretty much everything from ankle sprains to achilles problems to plantar fasciitis to shin splints to runner’s knee to back pain tends to be reduced in barefoot runners,” he says.

But Wallack has no doubts at all. “I recommend barefoot to everybody,” he says. “I’m convinced that when you’re barefoot you’re in total balance.”