The Benefits and Risks of Barefoot Running

It's safe to say that resorting to the primitive practices of our prehistoric ancestors is typically viewed as a bad thing. We evolved, discovered, and invented our way into a life in which we are no longer dependent on the hunt to bring us food, nor do we fear being stalked by predators. Suffice it to say, we've progressed in a way that's made life much easier.

Why, then, is the barefoot running movement gaining popularity? Is it simply a fad popularized by a few outspoken naturalists? Or is there science that backs a more natural approach to running?

The Case for Going Minimalist

Championed by Christopher McDougall's national bestseller Born to Run, the barefoot, or minimalist, running movement has been gaining some traction due to recent studies. In a paper published in 2010 in the journal Nature, Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, notes the difference in form between running barefoot and running in conventional sneakers. Leiberman found that minimalist runners tend to avoid landing on their heel, or "heel striking," and instead land on the ball or the middle of the foot. By doing this, Leiberman says barefoot runners "have almost no impact collision."

This "impact collision" can generate real problems for those who strike heavily on their heels. In a study published in the 2009 issue of PM&R, the researchers found that modern running shoes wielded more stress on knee, hip, and ankle joints compared to those who ran barefoot. The study found that the reasoning for these increases have much to do by the high arches and elevated heels associated with your conventional running shoe.

The Takeaway

Simply put, running barefoot, or in minimalist shoes, forces you to find a more natural form. By landing on the balls of your feet, our natural shock absorbers are able to displace any stress caused by your foot striking the pavement. Conversely, landing heavily on your heel results in increased stress on your joints. This can be translated in knee, ankle, hip, or even lower back pain.

Thinking about Making the Change?

Before you dive head first into your Paleolithic past, be sure you understand the risks. While there is evidence that barefoot running will strengthen your legs and feet, there have also been findings correlated with an increased risk of calf strain, Achilles tendinitis, plantar pain, and blisters.

When in doubt, consult a podiatrist before making the change and communicate any concerns you may have.




Daniel E. Lieberman, Madhusudhan Venkadesan, Adam I. Daoud, William A. Werbel

Biomechanics of Foot Strikes & Applications to Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear

ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 16, 2011, from­ /releases/2010/01/100127134241.htm

ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 16, 2011, from­ /releases/2010/01/100104122310.htm