Barefoot running and shoes

A friend asked me for my opinion on barefoot running, technique and specific shoes. I think that barefoot running is a big and controversial topic (!) so I thought I would post my response on line and get other’s perspective on it!

Here are some of my thoughts: Yes I agree that modern shoe wear is probably to blame for a lot of the foot problems that we now have. But the real problem starts when we started to wear shoes full-time as kids. You would probably know that we should try to let kids run around barefoot as much as possible and for as long as possible so that their foot musculature develops. As soon as we get into ‘stable’ ‘supportive’ shoes our own muscles are no longer required for the role… so we then design and need more supportive shoes to help the unstable foot, and so on…

In as far as our running style being changed due to modern shoes, I’m not so sure. I have not done a lot of reading on this specific topic so the following is just my opinion: I really don’t think that we are actually designed for long distance running. I think that most of our running – from a historical perspective – would tend to be over shorter distances and at higher speeds, ie: warfare, hunting, etc which would favour a style based on the ball of the foot as sprinting does.

However, we know that at slower speeds we do ‘naturally’ heel strike, such as with walking. Also from an anatomical perspective, the foot arches and shape seem to be designed for this function. And to their credit, good shoe manufacturers base their shoe designs on that structure and shape and their understanding of foot bio-mechanics, and try to work ‘with’ it as much as possible. Furthermore, from a clinical perspective we see a number of musculo-skeletal issues from incorrect foot function, especially when sprinters turn to distance running later in life and don’t change their running style! Without going into too much detail we are naturally equipped with a shock absorbing system called the ‘longitudinal sling’, which is based on a chain of structures (ligament, tendons and muscles) designed to absorb shock on heel strike.

In as far as shoes designed to mimic barefoot function, I’m actually a big fan. I am mostly familiar with the popular Nike ‘Free’ range and to some degree with the Vibram Five Fingers range. I like them because they are a great training tool for our foot musculature, but I would be cautious about their application for long distance running due to their decreased shock absorption and the point I made earlier about our running ‘design’. If you wanted to run in them I would then suggest the Nike Free range as they provide more ‘vertical/axial’ cushioning, and I would start with more supportive ones (higher support numbers, ie 7+) and then progress to less support (yes, expensive process I know!).

A great way to start, and this would apply to both types of shoes mentioned is to treat them as a training tool, which is really what they are. As with any training tool, there needs to be an introductory period and then some progressive overload. I would start with just wearing them around the house or gym training, etc, then progress to more hours/walking, and then do some running in them. While there’s people that do big kilometres with them, I would limit that to about 5kms.

Well I hope this adds to an interesting discussion’! I think its a really interesting and important topic. I would love to get some more educated comments on this!


  1. LG-life'sgood says:

    Barefoot running and shoes.

    Hi, thanks Max for such a comprehensive look at a subject I have been interested in for a while. There are a couple of thoughts I wanted to offer.

    I ran the City to Bay last year, I bought a brand new pair of shoes a couple of months before as my old shoes were dead. I went to a shoe shop where they used the pressure pad to try and get the best support for my feet. I trained in the shoes to try and ‘run them in’ before the fun run, and possibly didn’t give them enough time. By the 6k mark one of my knees was killing me, and my ankle on the other side was starting to hurt. By the end of the run it was all I could do to finish the race I was in so much pain (about an hour). There could be a number of reasons for this, but I decided that if running was going to hurt that much, I wasn’t going to do it anymore.

    I first started reading about barefoot running after hearing of a book that had been written about the Tarahumara Indians from Mexico who run amazing distances ( the whole premise of the book is based on a man’s quest to find out about running without getting injured. I haven’t read the book yet but it got me interested in the subject. I once did a triathlon, with a 2.5k run in bare feet as I forgot my running shoes, my feet were cut up a bit but it was a nice feeling. Then I found there are a lot of websites for enthusiasts of barefoot running (barefoot Ted), and a large grey area about it’s benefits and problems from a medical and scientific perspective.

    I also recently came across a story about persistence hunting in the Kalahari desert. ( Where the tribesmen run after a Kudu until it collapses. It made me think that perhaps we are designed for long distance running.

    So I decided to experiment on myself, I have started to run again, this time as my experiment, I tried running in Dunlop Volleys, thin soles, no heel or arch support, just thin rubber, material and shoe laces. (Don’t knock it, my Grandpa was a local tennis champ on Volleys) I noticed in pictures of ‘barefoot Ted’ a bit of a barefoot running fanatic, he had surprisingly muscular calves, where I always thought ultra-marathon runners would have super skinny legs. So I decided that running barefoot must utilise the calf a lot more than traditional running shoes would. (sorry that’s just how my mind works no science involved, that’s why it is good to hear from an expert like Max).

    So after running for a while, my calves are noticeably bigger, and my ankles seem thicker also!? I have had no injuries, though I have had sore muscles, less overall running pain, and am thinking of trying more barefoot style shoes, however the cost seems a little prohibitive (Vibram five fingers $200 AU, if you can even find them in Australia!) I haven’t looked at the Nike’s yet, so we will see. Let me just say, NO blisters with the Dunlops and I have done some k’s in them.

    I would love someone to comment who has any barefoot running comments, or tried any of the barefoot style shoes.


  2. I came across a website a while ago which talks about the correlation between gluteal development and barefoot walking in tribal people. It has some interesting thoughts on the matter. We typically focus on good gluteal function when rehabilitating people with hip, knee and ankle joint problems. Perhaps these issues are as a result of our westernised, sedentary lifestyles?? The link for the webpage is:

  3. Brenton Bowen says:

    This is still a very hot issue amongst health professionals. I see this not just as an issue of shod vs. barefoot running, but a very individual approach to running technique and functional strength.
    Barefoot running is real and possible, the main point is to avoid heel strike shorten stride length. This seems to be the main problem as people transition from orthoses barefoot style running.
    I think the experience outlined by LG in the above post is fairly typical. Most people have a few issues in transition and may decide to stop at a level of support that is appropriate for them.
    Personally, I love the Nike Free shoes. My favourite is the 4.5/5.0, having tried most support levels, the 2.0 is painful on asphalt and the 7.0 feels too supportive. When my functional strength is limited, I continue in neutral shoes with orthoses.
    I would encourage interested people to have a go and work with professionals that are willing to support your goals. There are are always a few hurdles, but generally nothing insurmountable.


  4. iNformMaxMartin says:

    Hi Brenton,

    thanks so much for your input into this post!! your invaluable experience and knowledge as a very broad thinking individual and podiatrist is greatly appreciated!

    I recently posted this clip on our ‘discussion focused’ FB page if anyone is interested.

    chat soon,


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