How Barefoot Running Helps Common Running Injuries

by Summer on May 17, 2010

It may seem like running shoes will protect your feet and legs from injuries, and running shoes certainly do a better job of that than they did in years past. They control the movement of your foot, thereby reducing the impact of your legs on hard surfaces. But let’s put some more thought into running injuries and why we get them in the first place.

Do running shoes really help?

Some runners are prone to injuries because they have serious biomechanical or degenerative conditions, but most runners get injuries from the way they run and how they train. The desire to build up miles leads many runners to add too much too fast – they train for a long time and they run far, but eventually they stop getting faster.

Other runners spend hundreds of dollars on running shoes, making the most of all that science and technology can offer, but injuries still occur. They restrict the natural movement of their feet and ankles in the hope that they are avoiding the ‘wrong’ movement, and in turn they restrict the natural balancing and shock absorbing capabilities of their feet.

How barefoot running helps

Barefoot running gives your feet and ankles the chance to work with you in a natural way to prevent injuries. Chances are you’ll start your barefoot running with limited mileage, maybe even walking, increasing your mileage and pace slowly. This in itself will go a long way to prevent you missing runs because of injuries.

Once you are running without shoes (or with a minimal running shoe), your running technique will naturally change. Barefoot runners adopt a ‘forefoot strike’, where they land more on their toes and lean forward a little. This creates more flexion in the ankle, which absorbs impact better than any running shoe.

Finally, the bones of the foot, unrestricted by a running shoe, can flex and move to help you balance, and find more stability on your step naturally. Many runners find that the very same conditions they were trying to correct with running shoes go away once the structures of their foot can move freely and as they were meant to.

Conditions that can be eased by barefoot running

Shin splints are a result of inflammation of the tissues covering the front of the shin bone. The heel strike of runners, increasing training too fast, and the willingness to run fast on hard surfaces are the leading causes of shin splints. Barefoot runners step more softly, are less likely to run too far or too hard, and are much more aware of the surfaces they run on, all of which avoids shin splints. Reducing impact also eases the concussive injuries that can create chronic knee pain in runners.

Chronic compartment syndrome is different from acute compartment syndrome in that the chronic version manifests itself in shin pain and foot numbness. Often mistaken for shin splints, compartment syndrome is not an impact injury. It occurs when the muscle on the front of the leg expands on ‘dorsiflexion’ or raising the top of the foot, and the muscle tears and damages the fascia, or muscle casing. The forefoot strike of barefoot running can go a long way to ease the chronic discomfort of runners with compartment syndrome, and maybe reduce the need for the only other solution, which is surgery. The lack of significant dorsiflexion in barefoot running also reduces the occurrence of calf pain.

Achilles tendonitis is caused by running shoes with too high of a heel, meaning this is an injury very much related to wearing the wrong shoe. A heel strike technique combined with a steep heel, however well cushioned, prevents the Achilles tendon from expanding and contracting as it is designed to do. Instead, it is compressed and then pulled into extension rapidly, eventually leading to tendonitis. The forefoot strike and the complete lack of an abnormal heel height for the barefoot runner, vastly reduces the likelihood of Achilles tendonitis.

Ankle sprains in runners are almost always caused by ‘rolling over’ on the ankle, due to a trip or misstep, or stepping on an unnoticed root or other hazard. Barefoot runners are much more aware of where they put their feet, and less likely to step on a hazard. If they do, their foot, unrestricted by shoes, can bend and flex to absorb more of the shape of the obstacle than in a shoe. Add to that how the ankle has less far to ‘fall’, not being perched on a stiff or stacked up sole, and the barefoot runner will find they are far more surefooted and stable.

The medical case is clear; if you are suffering from chronic or recurrent running injuries, give barefoot running a try. If you start slowly, and build up gradually, you may find that your running injuries are significantly reduced, or even disappear altogether!

Photo Credit: Mr. T in DC on Flickr

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

cdub July 4, 2010 at 4:09 pm

These benefits all sound great, but where are you getting your information? I don’t see your sources cited, or specific examples of the benefits. Also, what would one consider a ‘serious biomechanic condition?’. I am interested in barefoot running, but often claims seem to be made about benefits, without sources or examples and evidence to back it up.

Summer July 6, 2010 at 4:20 am

There is quite a lot of medical research about the benefits of barefoot running available in print, and on the web. Much is well referenced, and those references may also help to answer your questions. Perhaps the most recent publication to cite the medical research behind barefoot running is in Nature 463, 531-535 (28 January 2010). You might try that as well; it is based on extensive research, and there are many useful references there too. Hope this helps!

Peter Bird July 7, 2010 at 7:20 am

What a load of nonense! Warbuton’s article has been totally debunked.

Liebermann’s work in Nature has been dismissed by the biomechanics community as being full of flaws and was not even about injuires. Leibermann himself had to post a disclaimer on his website to distance himself from the way the the Evangelists from the Church of Barefoot Running were misinterpreting and misreporting his research.

There is NOT one piece of medical research that has shown that barefoot running is any better than running in shoes. You are misrepresenting the research.

Summer July 7, 2010 at 6:31 pm

I’m sure I won’t be able to convince Peter, and as he doesn’t allow any comments to be posted on his website, I will make a few points here – hopefully Peter can see I am not a ‘barefoot evangelist’ but rather an advocate for the benefits that can be gained by adding some barefoot miles to a running program…

Several recent studies do show that barefoot running reduces impact and increases efficiency. Take a look at Squadroni and Gallozzi, ‘Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced barefoot runners’ (J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2009 Mar;49(1):6-13); Divert, ‘Barefoot-shod running differences: shoe or mass effect?’ (Int J Sports Med. 2008 Jun;29(6):512-8); and Divert ‘Mechanical comparison of barefoot and shod running’ (Int J Sports Med. 2005 Sep;26(7):593-8). De Wit et al, ‘Biomechanical analysis of the stance phase during barefoot and shod running’ (J Biomech. 2000 Mar;33(3):269-78) showed that barefoot runners generally had less ‘heel-strike’ and more lower leg stability than shod runners, although it did acknowledge a lot of variation across the individual runners studied.

The question then seems to be ‘does impact or heel strike cause running injuries, and would reducing impact or heel-strike reduce running injuries?’. It is true that while runners often refer to ‘impact injuries’ not all running injuries are caused by impact, and running shoes can help to alleviate that impact. We also do not conclusively know that heel-strike is a significant source of injuries, although many running coaches (including those wearing shoes) do advocate a higher cadence, mid- or fore- foot strike form for greater efficiency.

One concern – again studied by researchers – questions if running injuries may be higher in shod runners because they train less cautiously because of the perceived benefits of their shoes to reduce that impact (Robbins and Waked, ‘Hazard of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear’, Br J Sports Med. 1997 December; 31(4): 299–303). Maybe, maybe not. More research does need to be done here. In any case, training responsibly in shoes ought to result in fewer injures than irresponsible training whether in shoes or barefoot.

What most barefoot enthusiasts – not evangelists – advocate is that barefoot running is a useful supplement to a running program. For few runners does it replace shod running completely, and for few runners should it. What it will do – the research cited above shows – is develop the runner’s stride and cadence in such a way that efficiency is improved and impact reduced; which are benefits for the runner whether they are wearing shoes or not. These benefits transfer when the runner puts their shoes back on.

Seems like no bad thing to me, plus, at least in my experience, barefoot running is fun. I’m not here to tell anyone they have to run barefoot, or that they have to run in shoes. Peter may choose to disagree; I believe it is up to each runner to make up their own mind, but I would suggest they give barefoot running a try and see for themselves.

Abbie @ Barefoot Running July 7, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Hi Peter,

Thanks for reading and adding your opinion! I do have to agree with Summer, and that as a pro-Barefoot Running site, we are here to explain to our readers some of the benefits that CAN be possible from barefoot running, and suggest that they give it a try. The truth of the matter is that many runners do get relief by taking off their shoes (I have spoken with them) and as long as you get into it slowly, there is little to no risk, unless you have a medical condition of course.


Peter Bird July 14, 2010 at 9:48 pm

How do you then explain the epidemic of stress fractures that is occuring in those who run barefoot?

Yes, there is less impact from barefoot running, but what has impact got to do with injury? If barefoot running reduces impact, where to the forces go? Forces do not disappear. They have to be absorbed by the forefoot and/or the achilles.

Also, can you please tell me exactly what an impact related injury is? Not ONE study has linked impact to any running injury.

Also, the work by Robbins and Gouw on the sensory attentuation stuff has been totatlly dismissed by the biomechanics community as nonsensicial, so you looking silly by quoting it. No one has taken their work seriously for years. If you are going to start quoting science, you had better make sure you actually know what they are really finding as results and the validity of the results, as your track record so far is very poor. Warburtons acticle as similarly been dismissed as nonsensical.

You say you know a lot of runners who prefer to run barefoot. I know a lot who have had to go back to shoes becasue of all the injuires they started getting.

Trololol August 1, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Lol, you mad, Peter?

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Eva June 24, 2014 at 11:25 am

I stared running barefoot about 4 months ago, out of curiosity and because I was tired of black toenails and blisters. It was love at first try. And despite the arguments that pro-shoes supporters would give, I can say from my own experience that my shin splints have disappeared. Simply because I land mid-foot instead of heel-striking. I had weak arches and would get aches and pains. How do you explain that all that is non-existent now?? And oh, I run way better and faster now :)

pandora round beads charms February 18, 2016 at 2:19 am

In this great design of things you receive an A just for effort. Where you actually lost us was in your specifics. You know, they say, the devil is in the details… And that could not be more true at this point. Having said that, allow me reveal to you just what exactly did deliver the results. The article (parts of it) can be extremely persuasive and that is probably the reason why I am taking the effort in order to opine. I do not make it a regular habit of doing that. Secondly, whilst I can notice a leaps in logic you come up with, I am not sure of just how you seem to connect the ideas which in turn help to make the actual conclusion. For the moment I shall subscribe to your position but hope in the future you connect the dots much better.

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