Running without running shoes

Born to Run coverThis summer I read Born to Run: The hidden tribe, the ultra-runners, and the greatest race the world has never seen by Christopher McDougall and loved it. It’s a great story, plus a real eye-opener.

I’ve always hated running since it hurt my knees. But I’m now running since I learned a different running style (this running on ice video did it for me) and that running shoes are part of the problem.  See these recent NY Times articles: The Human Body Is Built for Distance; Have you run barefoot?; Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants.

With all the runners in Northfield, it’s made me wonder: do the local high school and college running coaches and running groups like the Band of 10,000 Aches teach this stuff?


  1. Ross Currier said:

    Years ago, one of the times I ran Grandma’s, there was a guy who ran that marathon barefoot.

    He wore only a loin cloth and his body was painted.

    So, although he seemed to be a member of some “tribe”, there wasn’t much hidden about him.

    October 28, 2009
  2. Anthony Pierre said:

    I know, in 1991, high school cross country didn’t teach it.

    From speaking with current CC members, it doesn’t sound like they do either.

    I think it is important to have strong feet for all athletics and wearing shoes weakens them, but it is a very underrated and not very well understood concept.

    what are you running in right now griff?

    Take it from me, in july I was limping around with Achilles issues, some foot issues, IT band syndrome, shin splints. I had pretty much given up on running.

    I read born to run, took it (running barefoot) really slow and the injuries and chronic conditions have evaporated. I enjoy running again.

    October 28, 2009
  3. Ditto on Anthony’s comments, Griff. If you’ve been following Anthony or I on ye ol’ Facebook, you would have seen several posts about this from both of us. I started running barefoot in August, the knees don’t hurt any longer.

    I just purchased a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, which – I hope – will allow me to continue running “barefoot” outside throughout the winter as well. The Vibrams are minimal foot coverings which protect against the occasional glass shard or very sharp rock, but allow the foot to function as it evolved to function.

    When I ran track and cross country in high school, we were explicitly taught to land on our heels and roll forward onto our toes. They could not have been more wrong, and I have three knee surgeries to attest to that.

    October 28, 2009
  4. Ross, that would have been local Duluth TV weather man, Felix Humphries (Humphrey? Humphreys?), running Grandma’s barefoot. He used to do that. I think he was originally from Kenya.

    October 28, 2009
  5. Anthony Pierre said:

    you could probably run barefoot in the rec center

    October 28, 2009
  6. No.  I hate running inside.  Hate, hate, hate!  Also, I don’t know if they’d allow it.  I’ve heard St. Olaf forbids barefoot running on their indoor track, which is a dumb policy – last I checked, people were barefoot all around the pool – but, hey, it’s their track.

    October 28, 2009
  7. Ross Currier said:

    Brendon, this guy was DEFINITELY not from Kenya.  I would guess he might of been from Da Range.

    October 28, 2009
  8. john george said:

    Too bad he didn’t win. He could have gotten da loot, in Duluth, no less.

    October 28, 2009
  9. Bright Spencer said:

    Me, I always ran barefoot in the sand on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Guess it’s the Native American in me, but I have always done it that way.

    It always bugged me, too, to see people running during rush hour traffic alongside the vehicles, then I read a study, too long ago to reference, that talked about how doing that sort of thing has the same affect as smoking three packs of cigs in a day.

    October 28, 2009
  10. Tom Bisel said:

    A better term for this type of running would be natural motion.  Though barefoot running has its mechanical advantages, it leaves something to be desired in MN in January.  The point of some of the new running technology is to get back to basics with the Natural Running Motion displayed in bare-feet.  There are a few companies that are really focused on the Natural Running idea.  The BIOM project by ECCO and the shoes made by NEWTON.  Come check out these products at FIT to be TRI’d.  We currently have NEWTON in stock and will be receiving the BIOM shortly.

    October 29, 2009
  11. Anthony Pierre said:

    I would love for you to carry feelmax or vibrams


    October 29, 2009
  12. Griff Wigley said:

    Tony, now that it’s colder, I’m running in a pair of Vasque trail running shoes, being very careful to run like when I ran on ice playing broomball.

    October 30, 2009
  13. Tom,

    I agree that barefoot running is about a more natural running motion.  I found out that you do need something to beat the cold street.  I bought a pair of Vibrams recently, and they have kept my feet warm enough, though we’re not into the really cold weather yet.  I’m hoping that a pair of toe socks will be enough – I hate treadmills and running indoors – to get through outdoor winter running here.  Will you be selling toe socks?

    The BIOM shoes look quite a bit different than the Vibram or Feelmax shoes.  Seems like they wouldn’t encourage any real change in running form, given the heel padding especially.  Though, with the more minimalist support, they would probably help your feet strengthen.

    When I have more time, I hope to get in to your store.

    October 30, 2009
  14. Brendon,
    I’ve run in Five Fingers twice, both times ending horribly. The second time I was able to get a couple of miles in and felt okay until I took them off, to discover that the big toe on both feet had essentially turned into a blister with a toenail. I will likely try it again — I’m sure it gets better — but it’s certainly not without sacrifice.

    I am taking the Running/Jogging exercise science class at Olaf now, and while nobody’s specifically brought up barefoot running, running shoes have always been expected to be worn for class.

    October 30, 2009
  15. Hmm… two possibilities that I’m thinking about here, Sean: 1) the Vibram shoe is not sized correctly for your foot.  Due to the peculiarities of human toes, sizing something like the Five Fingers can be difficult (Vibram’s website warns about proper sizing and the importance thereof.)  2) your feet were not prepared – just a guess.

    Regarding #2 – I ran barefoot for about 2 weeks on soccer fields before starting in on a mixture or streets and grass for a couple weeks, then going to all streets and sidewalks.  The first couple runs, even on grass and even though I was only running a mile or two, left my feet quite hot with some minor blistering.  It took a couple weeks for that to subside and the soles of my feet really started to toughen up.

    I would not recommend anyone jump from modern running shoes directly to barefoot or minimalist shoes and try to go the same distance or the same pace or over the same terrain.  It is definitely something that you have to train toward with small steps (no pun intended).

    There also may be something about your stride, of course, which wears on your big toes more.  My stride seems to lead to more friction on my second smallest toes of each feet, though the blistering stopped once the skin grew a bit tougher.

    Very cool that you have that class!  So, do you run and then analyze your run, form, etc…, or is it a more general look at the science of exercise?

    October 31, 2009
  16. Brendon, yeah I am a card-carrying overpronator, so that’s likely why I was wearing particularly on my big toes. And I don’t mean to discourage barefooting, though there is an almost religious fervor to it that I’m somewhat skeptical of. Human beings are evolved to run barefoot, yeah, but not to run on concrete, asphalt, etc. Since I (and many others) only do street running, I’m not sure the barefoot design is applicable. In any case, I will still say that the Five Fingers are excellent for walking, and really help strengthen feet and lower legs (you really feel this the first few days you wear them).

    “Exercise science” is a bit misleading, I guess — just the name of the department, which also teaches true body mechanics, etc. classes.The class is primarily activity. We’ve spent some amount of time on form for sprinting and some time on stretches, but little on form for distance running. Most of the time in-class is spent on runs.

    October 31, 2009
  17. Agreed on all points, though I think asphalt roads are probably not much harder than dry scrubland or similar surfaces on which our more primitive ancestors would have run barefoot for hunting and survival.

    Concrete is a different matter, a very unforgiving surface, to be sure.  All the more reason not to heel-strike on it, though.

    I can understand both the fervor and the skepticism that such fervor engenders. For me, it’s about three knee surgeries and years of heel-striking.  I was taught to run heel-toe in middle school; so there’s a certain sense of having been misled and now “finding the truth” and “rebelling” against the establishment.

    It’s definitely more about encouraging people to run properly to lessen the likelihood or severity of injuries.  Traditional running shoes, with the huge heels and more rigid construction, make landing on the balls of the feet much harder.

    I do love the increased strength in my feet and lower legs, which is one of the major advantages of going barefoot.


    October 31, 2009
  18. Bright Spencer said:

    Oddly enough I find most of the extreme ideas, such as running year round, at odds with what nature intended, and as such, will end up hurting more in the long run.  I cannot tell you the number of older people (over 50) that are suffering with damaged joints, etc, from their exercise induced activities.  Yes, there are always new advances in design, but there are always people who misuse the information for many different reasons, I am sure.

    One thing is that the running process, should be the all out running type thing that cheetahs do, or that the tribal members who chew on a bit of  the cocaine like leaf that gives them energy to run 20 miles in a day, to search for food after the nearerby accommodations have run dry. When the food becomes too far to run, they move closer to the available food.

    Running naturally is all out and forward, not up and down, like I see so many of the runners running.  The intent, the flow of the body and the sense of strength and freedom are all one and the same.

    If you must run in place, build a 6 foot by 4 foot box, fill it with a couple of feet of sand, and run up and down all your want.  Add a fan, to make it seem like a spring breeze, and you’re off!

    Science rarely recreates the natural world.

    If it’s emotional/physical balance you seek, do some yoga.  I heartily recommend Richard Hittelman’s book.   Tai Chi is also great for young and old alike provided you can find a good teacher.

    Disclaimer:  I am not giving medical advice, I am not a doctor or therapist,  just offering up some Brightisms.

    November 2, 2009
  19. Peter Millin said:

    This is very interesting. I have been running for years and I will certainly give those a try.
    Any ETA on the vibrams yet?

    November 3, 2009
  20. Tom Bisel said:

    I see a seminar coming out of this.  I think it is clearly evident that Natural running motion is something that is here to stay.  Where the vibrams definitely are a barefoot running experience, I don’t think they are for everyone.  If you do choose to go the more natural route  I would agree that you need to get out on some softer surfaces to begin with.  Many barefoot runners recommend going to the track and running on the inside grass to get your mile in, I would agree that would be a great place to start.
    As for the BIOM they may look like they still encourage a heel strike, I believe you will find them quite different than you would expect.  I don’t know for sure since I haven’t run in them, but that is what my information has told me.  The BIOM should be arriving in the next 10 days, so that will give you all an opportunity to try on something new.  Don’t forget that NEWTON is truly the rebel on this area.  They have been in the natural running motion from their inception and have the most experience of any of these companies when it comes to this topic.  The vibram started out as a water shoe until someone thought to run in them.  I am no expert in this but I will always try to provide pertinent information to the Fitness community.  Thanks.

    November 7, 2009
  21. Griff Wigley said:

    Tom, I think a natural running motion seminar/conference is a great idea. Team up with the colleges and Band of 10,000 Aches. It could be a big draw from the metro area.

    November 14, 2009
  22. Anthony Pierre said:

    going totally barefoot is the only way to learn. even the vibrams will not force you to use proper form.

    November 20, 2009
  23. Anthony, have you tried the Vibrams? They’re really more tough socks than they are shoes — there is literally no padding. Their only purpose to prevent harm the skin of the foot. I don’t think there would be anything different about form between them and barefoot.

    November 20, 2009
  24. Anthony Pierre said:

    yes I have a pair, and it is different.  the vibrams allow you to grab the ground with your toes which scrapes your toes up (and also will make the top of your feet sore).

    they are also thick enough to allow you to run improperly.


    November 21, 2009
  25. How have the Vibrams been working in the winter, Brendan?

    I wanted to say, I bought a pair of Newtons from Fit to be TRI’d back at the beginning of December. Tom was very helpful — he had me try both the Biom and Newton and, though he was pretty neutral, if anything he pushed me toward the somewhat less-expensive Newtons. So I was impressed by that.

    I can’t give a complete verdict on the shoes yet, but they’re definitely different. For the first couple of weeks, I was switching back and forth between those and my old “stability” shoes; the old shoes (Brooks Trance 9) felt like little prison cells by comparison. The Newtons are extremely breathable, have a much wider toe box, and the effect on form is really noticeable — you’d really have to try to heel-strike in those shoes. Only caveat (and I was warned about this) is that the change in form has caused an almost-unending calf discomfort. It’s a productive-feeling discomfort, but it does get old.

    January 16, 2010
  26. The Vibrams do not work in the winter, Sean. Not in a Minnesota winter, at least, and certainly not given the last three weeks of very cold and icy weather. Wish they did. The calf pain went away for me after a couple weeks. I suppose that varies from runner to runner, though.

    January 18, 2010
  27. Anthony Pierre said:

    I was thinking about going on a short run today after work with the vibrams. 30 should be fine.

    January 19, 2010
  28. We were out walking in the Arb today and came across barefoot footprints in the mud. Alright, fess up, who’s the brave person running barefoot in March?

    March 21, 2010
  29. It is a great irony, isn’t that, that the print we least expect to find in the mud is a human footprint?

    March 21, 2010
  30. Griff Wigley said:

    Leo Babauta, zenhabits blogger, has a new post titled the barefoot philosophy.

    Yesterday morning I ran a few miles in my Vibram Fivefingers (more in a later post), designed to mimic barefoot running.

    And then I took off the minimalist Fivefinger shoes, and ran completely barefoot for half a mile. It was liberating.

    Later, I walked for a couple of hours, taking my sandals off for a good part of the walk. Today I walked barefoot once again. There’s a sensation to barefoot walking that is light, free, simple, joyful.

    Imagine walking barefoot on thick grass, or cool night sand. These are wonderful sensations that shod walkers cannot enjoy.

    Going barefoot, I realized, is a perfect metaphor for my philosophy of life: the barefoot philosophy. (continued)

    Robbie and Gilly both now have Vibram FiveFingers, purchased at REI.  I’m jealous.

    March 26, 2010
  31. Anthony Pierre said:

    lol that was probably me

    April 12, 2010
  32. Anthony Pierre said:

    I ran 8 miles yesterday in

    I really like them. flexible, stretchy, protect the bottoms of your feet. i wonder how long they will last.

    April 12, 2010
  33. Griff Wigley said:

    Are Pocket Slippers meant to also handle running, Tony?

    Only $25… hmmm.

    April 13, 2010
  34. Anthony Pierre said:

    the vibrams weren’t meant to handle running, but they do just fine. the pocket slippers held up great for the first 10 miles. not too much wear. I will see how long they last.

    you can also pick up water shoes at target that work just fine (the wife has some)

    April 13, 2010
  35. Anthony, have you tried the Kigos? They look intriguing. And the prices on both those and the Pocket Slippers look very very appealing.

    April 13, 2010
  36. Anthony Pierre said:

    I have seen the kigos. I think you would be better off going to target and getting water shoes. or the pocket slippers.

    I just went 6 miles in the slippers. I need to figure out how to not get blisters, then I could run forever

    April 13, 2010

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