Emperors new shoes…. no he’s barefoot

If you run, then it’s likely you are aware of the emergence of barefoot running and minimalist shoes which have a lower heal and less cushioning. In combination with this there has been a focus on landing on the forefoot rather than the heal to achieve a “better” running action. And working at the UP&RUNNING shop in Sevenoaks  I get a lot of questions about the pro’s and con’s of this more natural and basic approach.

Today we can drive our cars to the Supermarket but early man would have covered huge distances in his pursuit of food and this would have involved tracking and wearing down his quarry before going in for the kill. The body adaptions we have made, like shorter toes, larger stronger glutes and the nuchal ligament (ability to hold our heads steady while moving)  make us well adapted to running and support the view that that early humans were  true long distance runners. We would of course have been barefoot or wearing the simplest of shoes with very little cushioning.

This blogg gives some background to barefoot running, reveals the latest science on the subject and gives my own view so that you make your own decision about whether to move to a minimalist approach to your running.


Research comparing barefoot runners (from the developing world) with those who who wear shoes (from western societies) has shown that barefoot runners tend to  land on their forefoot before their heel strikes in order to cushion the impact. And those who wear shoes are more likely to land heel first as they have the cushion in the shoe to allow it.

Back in the 1970s, Bill Bowerman, one of the two men behind Nike, developed the first cushioned running shoe, the Cortez (pictured below). Bowerman noticed that by having a cushioned shoe the runner can land on their heel and achieve a longer stride.

The cushioned running shoe in combination with his book ” Jogging ”  inspired the jogging boom of the 1970s. The Boston Marathon followed, then our own London Marathon in 1981, and the rest is history.

Nike Cortez

However, although the heel is cushioned by the shoe the foot does still experience abrupt force – critically, more than when barefoot! It is these collisions that are believed to cause overuse injuries. However, currently there is no evidence to say barefoot causes less injury. A possible explanation of what might be going on is revealed by research into how gymnasts land from a vault. This research shows that the foot is constantly looking for information in the split-second it hits the ground. When a softer landing mat was used the force through the body, when hitting the ground, will actually increase as the foot seeks a stable landing. On a harder mat, the foot, on making contact with the ground, will process this information and will work harder and cushion the blow: reducing its impact. This innate ability is programmed in and even a thousand years of wearing shoes will not change it. It could be argued that cushioned shoes simply inhibit the information we process and make it more difficult for our feet to do what they are designed to do.

The first doubts about the need to have a cushioned shoe arose in the 1990s, when research started to reveal that despite all the technological development since the 1970s the rate of injury among runners remained steady. More recently, an in-depth study concluded that there was no evidence that prescribing running shoes based on assessment of foot type offered any protection from overuse injuries.

Doubts have been further fuelled by stories, fact or fiction, that  put Nike at the heart of a conspiracy. One such story is of a routine visit to a top US university track team by two Nike reps who noticed that the best runners on the team were wearing lower spec shoes with less cushioning and support. The the slower runners on the team were wearing Nike’s newest and most expensive shoes. When they queried it with the Head Coach, he revealed  that he had noticed that the more cushioned the shoes the more injuries his athlete seemed to develop and when they wore older lower value shoes they avoided injury. This is believed to be a wakeup call for Nike, who initially viewed it as a threat to their business but before long began to see this as an opportunity and started to look at the viability of a minimalist shoe.

Recently, the popularity of minimalist and barefoot running has increased by interest in the book Born to Run. Written by Christopher McDougall, the book follows his journey to the isolated Copper Canyons in Mexico where he meets the Tarahumara Indians and discovers how they can run huge distances every day in no more than simple sandals, never getting injured. McDougall was himself experiencing chronic foot pain which improved following his move to minimalist running or barefoot running.

All these factors: the research, the hype, the myth and the math have resulted in a sea change which the shoe manufacturers and magazines have all latched onto. More natural running is “in” and this has manifested itself in the growth of minimalist shoes and people trying barefoot and Pose running as well as the explosion of Trail running.

When you read magazine articles about running on your forefoot to reduce shock it all sounds  feasible, but I have reservations. If the objective is it cover the most ground in the shortest time with the least amount of energy then I’m not convinced.  I believe the transformation to a more forward leaning, shorter stride with greater knee flexion is inefficient. Tho attractive and mirrors the form of a person running at speed it lacks the drive phase to necessitate the need for a forefoot strike

I believe that the more we run or do any exercise the more efficient we become as the body makes adaptions and increases in strength. Core and specific increases in body strength can improve efficiency and reduce the risk of injury.

With accurate visual feedback it is surprising how easy it is to change the way you run and the link below shows how quickly it is possible change your foot strike.


Changing your running style to become more efficient should be the objective not changing gait to avoid impact when hitting the ground. If the running gait is more efficient then the result will be less injury. As a young runner I had a problem with my arms. Usually during an 800m I would enter the home straight and my arms would “go”. They would come in tight to my chest and stop driving. My coach put me on a regime of press ups every night before bed and within a month I’d gained the strength to get me to the line without tying up so badly. I started to use my arms in a more effective way.

Changing the way you land on your feet is treating the symptom not the cure and  some runners attempt barefoot running and force themselves to land on their forefoot by planter flexing their ankles. This can contract the calf muscle so that when the person lands, they load through an actively shortened muscle – increasing risk of injury, so sore calf’s are common.

As humans who originally walked barefoot or close to it, there is a strong argument to say that we should return to this,but we have worn shoes for thousands of years and there is no doubt that the foot is highly adaptive and our feet have adapted to shoes. An extreme example is Dancers using ballet shoes to go on pointe.

ballet shoe

Wearing cushioned shoes has weakened our feet so a move to a barefoot approach would strengthen them but care needs to be taken on the path to this point and the path will be beset with potential injuries if care is not taken. Barefoot coaching and Controlled retraining to a forefoot stance is important.

There does not appear to be any evidence yet showing that converting to a barefoot/forefoot stance reduces injury. Given the effect of a life spent wearing shoes and the environment we live in, where hard surfaces prevail, the move to minimalist running must be gradual, structured and carefully monitored.

Written by Darrell Smith


One response to “Emperors new shoes…. no he’s barefoot

  1. Good posting Darrell – it’s good to see an article that doesn’t treat the whole topic of ‘barefoot’ running as some sort of religious war!
    I suspect that given a year or two, the consensus will settle on a realization that being ‘comfortable’, efficient and injury free are all part of the same story; the interesting thing watching the video you linked to is how inefficient the lady looks in shoes!
    I don’t personally buy the idea that the existence of a big pad of foam in the heal of a ‘standard’ modern running shoe ‘allows’ heal-striking and that therefore people do; it seems more likely that the lack of flexibility in such a shoe inhibits the natural tendency of the foot to gently ‘slump’ to the ground, fore or mid-foot first, and to then create a good contact area to drive off.
    Long before minimal shoes were invented, many elite runners trained in racing flats – and that’s still not a bad thing for people to try, though many of the new transitional shoes (think 8mm drop, flexible and a bit more toe room) are a good place for people to start. Please people, don’t think that you can go straight from a pair of built up trainers to skipping around in barefoot shoes overnight – it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll hurt yourself!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s