Barefoot Running

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Barefoot Running

Barefoot Running

Origins of Barefoot Running:

The evolution of the five-finger shoe (or “barefoot running shoe”eg. Vibram Five Finger) started when observers noticed that members of African (particularly Masai) and Polynesians did not suffer from low back pain and lower limb overuse injuries to the same degree as others in the Western world. The argument was that because members of these indigenous tribes did not wear shoes, they had more developed intrinsic foot musculature as well as more developed extrinsic musculature of the postural lower limb muscles than those who spent their lives wearing structured shoes. The Vibram five finger shoe provides almost no structural arch support, to simulate barefoot running with minimal protective covering over the sole of the foot. 

Does it Really Reduce Incidence of Overuse Injuries?

The most important link between claims of reduced injuries or the theory of strengthening the foot intrinsics is that is causes the runner to adopt a different running style. Barefoot running incorporates a forefoot strike (as opposed to the traditional heel-toe running style) and focuses on a concentric muscle activity in the hamstrings to ‘pick the foot up’ during the swing phase of running. Essentially a barefoot runner never allows their heels to hit the ground. 


– Rather than joints taking the brunt of he load, the forces from the ground reaction force are dispersed throughout the muscle system to spare the joints from undue compression.

– This running style requires that the forefoot strikes under the hips, thus eliminating a ‘braking force’ on the lower limb that is characteristic of heel-toe running. 

– The running action becomes more efficient. 

– Decreased loading of the knee joint and eccentric forces on the IT band may decrease the risk of developing IT band friction syndrome


– It takes a bit of practice to master the barefoot style of running

– Because the heel never hits the ground, it requires extraordinary endurance in the calf muscles (particularly soleus) to be able to run significant distance using this style.

– Clinically, soleus strains are the most common complaint of runners switching to the barefoot style running. 

– Transition to barefoot running should be done over a period of several months, alternating between a structured shoe and a Vibram, increasing the amount of time spent in a Vibram. This allows time for proprioceptors, intrinsic foot muscles and supportive hip and postural muscles to adapt to the change in support.

Clinical Relevance: 

Barefoot running is not for everyone. Some people who have spent their lives in supportive shoes have so much foot atrophy that transitioning to barefoot is not worthwhile. In some cases, it may even be impossible, depending on the structural degeneration or anomalies of the individual’s foot. In some cases, extra support and orthotics are necessary and barefoot may be more damaging to that individual. In the case of an injury, it is advisable to seek assessment and treatment for the cause of the problem, which may include adapting your running style and strengthening of certain musculature. If there is any concern about transitioning to barefoot running, a biomechanical assessment of the foot and/or running technique would be prudent prior to adopting this new style.

For further information, please contact us by phone or email and ask to speak to one of our physiotherapists.


Crevier (2009) J. musculoskeletal Medicine 26 (7)