PT Classroom - Brief Overview of Barefoot Running / Minimalist Running ׀ by Michelle Kornder, SPT

Introduction to Barefoot / Minimalist Running

Although commercially available minimalist shoes like the Vibram FiveFingers, the Merrell Road Glove, Nike Free and the Saucony Hattori have introduced novice runners to barefoot running, this trend is not new to elite runners. In 1960, Abede Bikila raced the entire 1960 Olympic Games Marathon barefoot and won gold (1). In 1984, Zola Budd set the world record for the 5000m while running barefoot (1). However, before transitioning from shod running to barefoot running, runners should carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages of running barefoot.

Running Mechanics
Barefoot runners run differently than shod runners, utilizing shorter stride lengths and higher stride rates (1). While shod runners typically strike the ground heel first, barefoot runners strike the ground with either the midfoot or forefoot (1).

Possible Advantages
Utilizing shorter stride lengths and midfoot/forefoot strikes results in reduced ground reaction impact forces in barefoot running relative to shod running (2). A study by Edwards et al. suggested that shorter strides “probably reduce the potential for stress fracture injuries” and recommended that runners desiring to decrease the likelihood of a stress fracture to shorten their stride by about 10% (1).

Some researchers believe that barefoot runners have a low incidence of plantar fasciitis because barefoot running increases the strength of the intrinsic foot muscles; however, no research exists supporting these claims (1).

Possible Disadvantages
While there are no published accounts of exposure to surface debris or temperature while running barefoot, barefoot runners are subject to injuries from sharp debris on the ground, burns in hot climates, or frostbite in cold climates. For immunosuppressed individuals or people with peripheral neuropathies, concerns exist regarding exposure to microorganisms or infectious agents while running barefoot (1). In these individuals, even a minor scrape could result in a large scale infection. However, advocates suggest that concerns can be partially eliminated by running indoors on controlled terrain (1).

Transitioning from Shod Running
When transitioning to barefoot running, all researchers urge runners to proceed cautiously and slowly (1,2). Several resources exist online, including REI’s “The Basics of Barefoot/Minimalist Running” (3) and Vibram’s “Learning to move and run in Vibram FiveFingers” (4). Both resources recommend starting slowly and building up gradually. REI recommends using the 10% rule – “no more than 10% a week in both distance and foot strike change” (3). Vibram recommends completing foot sensory exercises, walking on different surfaces, and a two week foot strengthening program, all while emphasizing the individuality of the progression from shod to barefoot running (4). According to Jenkins and Cauthon, most barefoot runners who write about their transition from shod running to barefoot running emphasize listening to your body (1).

While barefoot runners have pounded the pavement for decades, the trend has recently become more mainstream with the introduction of popular shoes including Vibram FiveFingers, named one of the best health interventions of 2007 by Time magazine. When runners adapt the forefoot/midfoot strike classically used when running barefoot, early research suggests a reduction in ground reaction impact forces. However, if this reduction in force translates to a reduction in running injuries remains unclear. More research is needed to determine the impact of barefoot running on running injuries and how best to transition from shod running to barefoot running.




Last revised: June 21, 2012
by Michelle Kornder, SPT


1. Jenkins DW, Cauthon DJ. Barefoot running claims and controversies: A review of the literature. J Am Podiatr Med Assoc. 2011;101(3):231-246.
2. Rixe JA, Gallo RA, Silvis ML. The barefoot debate: Can minimalist shoes reduce running-related injuries?. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012;11(3):160-165. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825640a6.
3. The basics of Barefoot/Minimalist running. Accessed 6/10, 2012.
4. How to get started in FiveFingers. Accessed 6/10, 2012.

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