Dare to bare:
The truth about barefoot running

Stepping on to a New York ferry, I breathe in the crisp, fresh autumn air. I’m heading out to the island where my race begins – but it’s not the race you’re thinking of.A far cry from the 45,000-strong New York Marathon, this event – the New York City Barefoot Run – is on a rather smaller scale. But the fact that it’s happening at all, attracting over 400 runners in its second year, is testament to the recent revolution in our sport; a revolution that has seen many – myself included – swap their cushioned and motion-control shoes for barely-there minimalist footwear – or indeed, shun shoes altogether.

I’m in good company. Among those boarding the ferry are Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and co-author of a landmark paper, published in the journal Nature, outlining the evidence that shows humans were ‘born to run’. Talking of Born to Run, the author, Chris McDougall, is also with me, chatting to Barefoot Ted, who stars in the book, and legendary barefoot running coach Lee Saxby, who McDougall credits for ridding him of injuries.

It’s a Who’s Who of the barefoot running scene’s leading lights and unsurprisingly, talk centres on barefoot running. How long it takes to adapt. How it’s enabled someone perennially injured to run pain-free. The best surface to run on. Whether or not Nike Frees really qualify as a minimal shoe. There’s no ‘Why?’ or ‘Should I?’ being asked here today – it’s all ‘How?’ and ‘How far?’

This is a refreshing change from the scepticism, bemusement or downright hostility that barefoot running often elicits. But Lieberman believes scepticism should be encouraged. ‘People are suspicious about what the shoe companies have been saying, but they need to be suspicious about what the barefooters and minimalist shoe manufacturers are saying, too,’ he says. ‘There are a lot of opinions and very few facts about most things in running and barefoot is no exception. More research is needed.’

That may come as a surprise. It’s easy to assume, given all the media hullabaloo, that dozens of papers have been published proving that barefoot running is ‘better’ in every way – the answer to a whole litany of injury problems and even the key to improved performance. But whatever the growing number of barefoot aficionados and minimalist shoe manufacturers would have you believe, that isn’t the case. ‘“Is barefoot better?” is the wrong question to ask,’ says Lieberman. ‘The issue isn’t whether you run barefoot or not but concerns how you run – your form.’

Back to our roots

There’s a 20-minute walk to the start line when we land on Governors Island. Hundreds of soles pad silently along the asphalt road, gathering for the pre-event briefing under a huge banner brandishing the ‘I love NY’ logo – the heart replaced by a bare footprint. The Statue of Liberty looms proudly across the glittering bay. ‘Welcome back,’ says John Durrant, event organiser and founder of Barefoot Runners NYC. ‘And I mean that even if you weren’t here last year. Welcome back to natural human movement.’

The NYC Barefoot Run isn’t a race as such. There are no timing chips, no clocks and not even a set distance, but my pre-race butterflies are still aflutter. My husband Jeff, a competitive runner, is bemused by the ‘as many laps as you like’ format. I know it’s not just about winning, he says, but people like to know how they performed and make comparisons. McDougall is more enthusiastic: ‘I think this will be the next wave,’ he says, between signing well-thumbed copies of his book and doling out temporary tattoos. ‘Look around you – everyone is smiling. Competition makes people anxious and encourages them to do too much.’

It’s true that there’s more emphasis on fun and freedom in barefoot running. As the race gets underway, I don’t see many people starting their Garmins or elbowing their way to the front. Barefoot Ted isn’t even going in the right direction, choosing instead to whisk people anticlockwise around the course pulling a foot-powered rickshaw. ‘It’s all about testing the limits of what’s pleasurable, not what’s possible,’ he says.

I can see the appeal of getting in touch with nature and making running more playful, but both as a runner and a coach, what lured me in was the idea of running more efficiently and without injury.

My barefoot journey began back in 2007 when researching an article on whether it was possible to change the way you run. I tinkered with my own form, switching from a heel strike to a forefoot strike and, as I did so, I started to find my usual shoes cumbersome and heavy. I began to wear lighter, more pared-down shoes. My PBs over 10K, 10 miles and the half marathon all improved over the next couple of years (despite having already been running for 17 years). But then injury struck: plantar fasciitis. In my efforts to get rid of it, I tried everything – stretches, exercises, orthotics, injections, stability shoes – but when none of it worked, I resolved to rebuild my form from the ground up. And that meant going barefoot. There’s nowhere to hide poor technique when your feet are bare, I figured.

It’s a theory backed by Lieberman’s research. In 2010, he published a study showing that habitually barefoot people run differently from those accustomed to wearing shoes. For a start, they tend to land on their forefoot or midfoot rather than their heels (where 75%+ of shod runners land). Secondly, they land more softly, generating smaller initial impact forces than heel strikers wearing shoes, in spite of the absence of cushioning. They also have greater springiness (or ‘compliance’) and less stiffness in their stride.

‘We evolved to run barefoot and did so exclusively until recently, in evolutionary terms,’ Lieberman tells me and Jeff as we make our first lap of the 2.1-mile course. ‘The lower collision forces and greater compliance are what allow habitually unshod people to run barefoot and for it to be safe and comfortable.’ He compliments Jeff on his form and trots ahead, the barefoot professor sporting a t-shirt that reads ‘Evolved to Run.’

But for most of us, who have spent a lifetime with our feet encased in shoes, the natural, gentle movement pattern that Lieberman describes is likely to be somewhat rusty to say the least. ‘Simply taking off your shoes does not ensure good form,’ he concedes. ‘You can run badly barefoot and well in shoes. Ultimately, how you run is more important than what’s on your feet.’

The trouble is, in traditional built-up running shoes, that wad of cushioning between you and the ground makes it very difficult to know how you are running. ‘Proprioception is the foundation of skill,’ says Lee Saxby. ‘A cushioned running shoe dampens down your awareness and takes away valuable feedback.’

This idea of being closer to and more ‘in touch’ with the ground is one of the biggest selling points of minimalist footwear. But not all minimal shoes are created equal. In fact, with many major brands jumping on the bandwagon (while continuing to make and promote their conventional shoes), natural running proponents are beginning to distinguish between the terms ‘barefoot’ and ‘minimal’, as if defending their territory from the invading army of new, lightweight shoes.

The great shock’n’sole swindle?

Purists are scathing about the brands paying lip service to minimalism. ‘It’s about giving people what they want rather than what they need,’ says Saxby. But Nick Pearson, managing director of Sweatshop, the UK’s largest running shoe retailer, believes there is a genuine place for these more moderate products. ‘They won’t change your gait, but they may help you get stronger and reduce your risk of injury,’ he says. And perhaps just as importantly, from a marketing point of view, they might make you feel as if you’re part of something new and exciting in running. The idea of ‘semi barefoot’ footwear to help runners transition from traditional cushioned shoes is catching on. British brand Inov-8 has a fittingly innovative solution: its minimalist range is rated using ‘arrows’ – the fewer arrows on the shoe, the more minimal it is, allowing you to transition your way through the range over time.

‘It seems logical that you gradually reduce the level of cushioning in your shoes, but it’s based on the wrong premise,’ believes Saxby. That premise being that it’s the shoes that are at the heart of the matter and not how you run. ‘No shoe can protect you from the forces of running, so if you aren’t going to change your form to handle those forces more efficiently, stick with traditional padded trainers.’

I see Saxby’s point, but in my experience transitional shoes have their place in reacquainting runners with what’s beneath their feet and facilitating a more natural running style.

For shoe retailers like Sweatshop, the new wave of shoes creates a tricky situation. How can they justify selling old-school trainers at the same time as having ‘bought in’ to the barefoot market? ‘The industry has been guilty of making too many outrageous claims about what a shoe can do for you that cannot be substantiated,’ says Pearson. ‘It’s often presented as a black and white scenario: buy the right shoe and you won’t get injured; buy the wrong shoe and you will.’ But, as he points out, that’s just as much of a problem with barefoot and minimal shoes as it has been historically with traditional shoes. 

McDougall agrees. ‘My concern is that the barefoot trend is being led by products,’ he says. The minimalist shoe industry is now worth $1.7 billion. You’ve got many major shoe companies producing minimal shoes but not telling people how to run in them. The shoes don’t change anything – it’s your form that needs to change.’

And therein lies the difficulty for companies such as Sweatshop. ‘Moving away from conventional footwear requires a period of adaptation,’ says Pearson. ‘And while a customer may have read Born to Run and been inspired and excited by it, the reality is that they may not have the time or commitment required to change their gait or gain the conditioning they need to adapt successfully.’

And if they don’t? ‘As a retailer, our role is to inform, educate and protect the customer – they need to understand the choice they are making,’ says Pearson. ‘There’s a quantum leap between a true barefoot shoe with no cushioning or heel raise whatsoever, such as a VivoBarefoot shoe and a more conservative minimal shoe, like the Saucony Kinvara.’

Spencer White, head of Saucony’s Human Performance and Innovation Laboratory, the Kinvara is designed to allow you to heel strike if you need to. ‘When you are in the process of changing your gait, you will still heel strike occasionally, say, when you’re getting tired,’ he says. This ‘minimalism lite’ category of shoes, which tend to be lightweight, less cushioned and less structured, might sound like the perfect compromise for someone who wants to dip their toes into natural running. But some experts see them as a red herring. ‘It’s much easier to change your form in a non-cushionied shoe,’ believes Jay Dicharry, director of the Speed Performance Clinic and a leading researcher on running biomechanics, injuries and footwear.

Saxby couldn’t agree more. As we fall into step on a second lap of Governors Island, both of us unshod, he makes a blunt observation. ‘A lot of these people have got rid of their shoes, or put on a pair of Fivefingers or whatever, but they are still running with crap technique. When I see injuries in people running barefoot or in minimal shoes it’s because they haven’t changed their form. Learn the technique, and build the conditioning to back it up.’

Time to think outside the (shoe) box

Saxby believes the overriding problem is that people don’t see running as a skill. ‘They’ll take up tennis and readily book a series of lessons to acquire the skills to play well,’ he says. ‘They don’t expect to buy a racket that instantly improves their game. And it should be the same with running.’

So what exactly is good form – and how do you master it? When I cadged a lift in Barefoot Ted’s rickshaw, he linked learning to run barefoot to learning a language. A language is a concrete thing with set principles and rules – but how we master it might differ (we all have our own unique ways of learning and understanding). That made sense to me – but when I attended some of the clinics organised as part of the New York City Barefoot Run the day before the event, I was surprised to find the various coaches in attendance were not all speaking the same language.

Among the advice I heard: Always let the heel touch down/Don’t let the heel touch down; Stand up straight/Adopt a forward lean; Snap your bellybutton against your spine/Belly breathe; Start on concrete/Stick to soft surfaces. So we’re clear on that, yes?

This disparity in coaching advice and the attendant notion that everyone has their ‘own’ way exasperates Saxby. ‘There is only one way to run,’ he says. ‘Like it or not, we are all subject to the same biomechanical laws. Imagine an engineer building a bridge. He ignores all the laws of physics and decides he’ll just ‘feel’ his way through the task. It’s never going to work. The hierarchy of human movement is physics.’

Erwan Le Corre, the much-heralded founder of MovNat, which promotes and teaches natural movement to us ‘zoo humans’, agrees. ‘There are lots of ways to run, but only one way to run efficiently, in a way that uses the body how it was designed to move,’ he says.

Lieberman’s research tells us that we are designed to land on the balls of our feet. But if you’re thinking that simply switching from your customary heel strike to a forefoot landing will turn you into a proficient barefoot runner, you’re mistaken. ‘Where your foot lands in relation to your body is every bit as important as what part of your foot touches the ground first,’ says Dicharry.

Lieberman concurs: ‘If you are landing on the forefoot but it’s still out in front of you (overstriding), you simply put higher loading forces through the calves and Achilles.’ In fact, research from his Harvard laboratory indicates that ‘bad’ barefoot running technique causes loading rates that could be just as detrimental as heel striking in shoes.’

Good form demands three interrelated elements, says Saxby. His mantra is ‘posture, rhythm, relaxation.’ ‘An upright body posture, with the head above the hips and the feet beneath them, combined with the right rhythm or ‘cadence’ of 170-185 steps per minute stops you overstriding and enables you to land with the foot underneath you rather than extended in front,’ he explains. ‘Then you need to relax into it. Tension sabotages rhythm and relies on excessive muscle action.’

Le Corre adds the point that running with correct form doesn’t mean every stride should be identical. ‘Form should not be rigid,’ he says. ‘You may need to overstride for a few steps because of the terrain – the environment influences your form and part of being an efficient runner is your ability to adapt to it.’

The road to being a better runner

There wasn’t much call for adaptability at the New York City run. The course was pancake-flat and 100 per cent on asphalt. After 4.2 miles, my bare soles were smarting and a large blood blister had formed on my toe. Besides, it seemed more people were now after-partying than running. As I joined the first-aid queue in search of a blister plaster, the paramedic glanced up at us all and quipped ‘I have Nikes for sale.’

For a moment I could picture the scene from his point of view – a bunch of crazies following the latest fad. With so much hype, even non-runners are aware of the ‘barefoot’ trend. But I worry that the buzzword has become a misleading umbrella term, referring to everything from literally running barefoot or in Fivefingers to just a slightly-less-chunky trainer. It’s important to understand the distinctions between these degrees of commitment, as well as their relative risks and rewards. If all you want to do is shave a few grams and millimetres off your heel lift, go ahead. But if you plan to go the whole hog, be prepared to put in the necessary work and accept that adapting will take time.

I went literally barefoot in New York to enter fully into the spirit, but in all honestly, I run barefoot infrequently at home. A mile or two here, a few drills or strides there – the remainder of the time I’m in shoes, albeit very minimal ones. But I don’t think that’s an issue. For me, I know going ‘barefoot’, without the cushioning, guidance, stability and support of a traditional running shoe has taught me to run better. Instead of silencing the feedback and supporting my weaknesses I’ve listened to what my body is saying and addressed shortfalls in my strength and mobility.

A few years ago, in the week before the London Marathon, my new puppy chewed up one of my orthotics. I nearly had a nervous breakdown and spent a fortune having a new one made in time for race day. Now I have the confidence, know-how and freedom of being able to run in anything – or nothing at all. The lesson is that the answer to good form and injury-free running does not simply lie inside a shoebox.