Barefoot Bandits

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During the past year, more and more runners and readers have asked for my opinion regarding the increasingly popular barefoot running styles of shoes.  I was recently interviewed about my thoughts about the trend of changing over to barefoot style running

Have you seen your patients change their regular running shoe to as style of shoe to simulate barefoot running?

I have, over the past year been asked questions about barefoot running seem to parallel the influx of new barefoot running shoes available. The most common I’ve seen in my practice include NikeFree, Vibram Five Fingers and Newton Running shoes.

The NikeFree was the first introduced in 2004. During that time, Nike who was sponsoring Stanford University’s track team discovered that some of their training had been done barefoot. Stanford’s athletic coach at the time, Vin Lananna felt that barefoot training reduced athletic induced injuries and improved ankle strength. Nike saw an opportunity and then the NikeFree was developed. Basically it has a soft, non-supportive cloth upper with a wide, cushioned midsole having deep grooves to enhance flexibility.

A little later on the scene was the Vibram Five Fingers, which were introduced in 2005. Vibram originally designed these to be worn while yachting and was surprised initially that anyone would want to run in them. Once this was realised, the Vibram with individual toes became mainstream.

Newton Running was developed in 2007 and is similar to the NikeFree in appearance. The main difference between these two is that this little guy provides more forefoot cushion. It was designed by Runners and is heavily endorsed by runners.

In regard to shoes that simulate barefoot running, what in your clinical opinion are the biomechanical strengths and weaknesses of these shoes in comparison to the basic and conventional running shoes?

Barefoot running shoes are designed to promote forefoot contact over heel contact – in other words, a lighter strike to the ground.

This does two things.

1)   it reduces the impact of heel strike, improving shock absorption throughout the midfoot and forefoot.

2)   it alters the centre of gravity forward with the feet being better centred below the hip, which is a much more stable alignment.

My concern with barefoot running shoes isn’t with the biomechanics of the design but rather the concern that runners will see this as this new, sexy fluoro shoe and train without proper conditioning or assessment.

It doesn’t matter whether you are wearing NikeFree 5.0 or Nike Zoom Structure Triax +12. If the running shoe isn’t a match to your type of foot and running biomechanics, injuries will occur.

I also think in addition to shoes, too many runners have not been adequately coached in proper form.

The best running shoe design in the world coupled with poor running form has little chance of benefiting a runner.

ChiRunning, Pose Tech Training and Evolution running are all running methods that simulate barefoot running form and are often helpful in reducing or eliminating injury.

Are there other considerations Physiotherapists should keep in mind when asked for recommendations of these shoes by patients? Are there certain foot types that would prohibit use of these shoes?

When asked by patients about barefoot running I say it may have a place in an overall training strategy, but based on most of the patient’s pathology I see coming through the door, few would benefit from this as a primary treatment. In fact I have taken quite a few runners out of these styles of shoes because they caused injury.

It amazes me that so many experienced runners (triathletes, marathoners, ultrarunners) who presumably know everything about their running are oftentimes clueless when it comes to their shoes.  Then it is my time to shine! J

They are sponsored by a particular shoe company consequently have to wear that company’s shoe and no one has really ever analysed whether it’s right for them or not. Or, they have run in the same shoe for the past 10 years but never realized that the shoe design has changed so dramatically during a version change, that in spite of the name being the same it’s not the same shoe.

In your experience in treating athletes, are there any particular brands of these shoes that simulate barefoot running that you have found to be effective?

The few patients I have who use these types of shoes as well as readers of my blog find that Vibram Five Fingers are really the only shoe that simulate the true feel and biomechanics of barefoot running. NikeFree and Newton Running seem to be losing ground in the battle of barefoot running shoes. However, I’m sure as time goes on, more and more shoe companies will jump on the barefoot running bandwagon and incorporate even more designs and styles into their manufacturing lines.


So in other words, keep it simple and use what works for your own running style…



The Office Athlete