Busting the Top 10 Myths of Barefoot Running

There’s a link-bait article on New York Times that’s going around about how barefoot running is questionable from a health point of view. They seem to troll on this topic periodically with questionable research and study behind it. Over the last year or so of running barefoot and in Luna Sandals, there are a number of myths about barefoot running that I would like to dispel. Just like many things, people seem to treat barefoot running as a binary thing. Everyone should run that way or not. That’s silly.

Barefoot Running Myths

Marble Mountain Wilderness

Marble Mountain Wilderness

When I started running, it was with Vibram Five Fingers first though all the exercises that helped me un-learn and become a runner were done barefoot. I then tried Invisible Shoes followed by going completely barefoot (on asphalt) and recently Luna Sandals on trails. I’ve personally come to the conclusion that it’s about barefoot running style. Once you learn that, it doesn’t matter what shoes you were. Many Kenyan runners ran barefoot most of their childhood, but when you see them run with super cool athletic shoes in competitions, they still run as if they were barefoot. In other words the technique matters more than what you wear.

Myth #1 – Barefoot running is beneficial to health

Running is beneficial to health, not necessarily barefoot running. In the most basic form, just getting out for a few miles on a regular basis, working up a sweat and moving your body does wonders to your weight, your attitude, stress levels, hypertension, etc. But you might find other forms of exercises equally enjoyable as long as you are out there moving it. I love running, but I also like cycling and roller blading. Whatever form of exercise works for you and makes you feel alive is what you should be doing.

Myth #2 – Barefoot running is for everyone

Yup, and everyone should be right handed and learn how to code too. Same argument as above. Seriously though, if you are an adult and haven’t really gone barefoot since you were a child, I would highly recommend that you try this at home, your backyard, at the beach, etc. You don’t even have to run; just touch the earth with your feet and be amazed at how connected you feel. Did you know that your feet have the most number of nerve endings in your body?

Myth #3 – You’ll step on poo when you run barefoot

I swear, someone asked me about this once. They seemed genuinely concerned. Thing is, I don’t run with any of the iGadgets. So it’s fully immersive and if you don’t have any shoes on, you better watch where you are going. In a lot of ways, barefoot running on city streets is much the same as trail running, since you can’t just get in a zone and forget about your surroundings. If you see anything (including poo) that’s going to make you uncomfortable or hurt you, you step, run or walk around it. The eyes and brain have to work together with your feet. When was the last time you got burned while cooking?

Myth #4 – It’s easy to stub your toes when you run barefoot

I’ve talked to and read about marathoners and ultra runners that have lost their toe nails, blackened them on downhill runs, got blisters because of the wrong pair of socks, etc. After a race a month for 9 months now, with my first 50K ultra marathon coming up this weekend, haven’t stubbed my toe during a run yet. Either I’m incredibly lucky or this myth is so busted. Nice thing about open toed Luna Sandals? No chaffing from a bad pair of socks. I do have to occasionally stop and remove a pebble or a twig stuck in my sandals.

Myth #5 – Barefoot running will make you run faster

See, it’s about the style and technique again. Barefoot running might make you faster. Learning about running economy and proper technique will definitely make you faster. Interval runs and hill climbing (barefoot or not) will for sure, build endurance. I’ve personally noticed that my pace is faster when I have no sandals than when I do. I run pretty quiet too.

Myth #6 – Barefoot running causes blisters and can bust your knees

I run anywhere from 20 to sometimes 50 miles each week. That includes short interval runs to long slow runs. I’m 42, I’ve lost 20 pounds in the last year and my knees have had no issues whatsoever. The only blister I got from barefoot running was because of bad posture in the first three months. Other than, my feet are now strong, the arch is more pronounced and I’m no longer afraid of breaking into a 20 mile run. And if you run barefoot, it’s super hard to heel strike and you’ll end up automatically bending your knees. This acts as a shock absorber (by design) to cushion the footfall minimizing the impact force.

Myth #7 – You have to transition into barefoot running

For as long as I remember, I don’t ever recall running, in earnest. As a kid I was super athletic and sporty, but never during most of my adulthood. So when I took up running, just over a year ago, I directly went barefoot. But very slowly and gradually built up the strength in the lower limbs to un-learn and become a runner. I didn’t try zero-drops and minimal shoes. What I found was learning (or un-learning) how to run is best done barefoot. This shocks the body and very quickly teaches you proper posture and technique. Once you learn that you can run in your Tom’s and you’ll still do okay.

Myth #8 – Barefoot running makes you a tough guy/gal

I wrote about this a while back. People thing you are some kind of rock star for running without shoes. I think it’s exactly the opposite since you can’t just muscle through gravel. You have to slow down, picking out the path, watching your step and pitter patter across. You adapt, you change and every little pebble, twig becomes part of a beautiful feedback loop that lets you adjust and conform to the terrain. I think barefoot running makes you more vulnerable and more connected to your surroundings than making you a tough guy/gal.

Myth #9 – Learning to run barefoot takes a long time

Quick, kick off your shoes and socks and run barefoot for 20 yards as if you are about to save someone from getting hit by a bus (or something urgent like that). If you watched a video of this short dash, you’ll find out that you already know barefoot running technique. You would’ve bent your knees, shortened your stride, eyes looking ahead, shoulders relaxed and automatically become a forefoot or mid-foot runner. Now knowing how to dash 20 yards naturally and innately is very different from going out on a longer run, since your muscles have atrophied and all those years of bad habits kick in. This requires un-learning and it’s more about undoing bad habits than learning what your body already knows how to do.

Myth #10 – Barefoot running causes stress fractures

As long as you take the time to ease into it, follow the 10% rule, strengthen your lower limbs, rebuild the atrophied muscles and really pay attention to what your body is telling you, you are going to be fine. And the older you are and the longer you’ve been wearing shoes, the more time it’s going to take to un-learn and teach your body the new posture and techniques. But this is no different from picking up any other sport. I sucked at skiiing and roller-blading the very first day month year. I was doing everything possible to fall down, was getting winded just trying to balance to stay up and had really poor efficiency.

So barefoot running is not a fad. It’s just an incredibly natural and efficient way of un-learning bad habits to run injury-free.

What do you think of barefoot running myths? Do you have anything else to add to this list?


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  • tb

    What is the 10% rule?

    • http://freeradical.me/ kowsik

      When you are starting to run (especially barefoot), never to increase pace or distance by 10% week over week (or month over month depending on how your body handles it). So if you run a mile, stay on that mile for a week or month and then increase to 1.1 miles. This allows your body to “catch up” to the distance and get used to it before you push further.

  • bret

    To back you on the question of injuries, I used to have hip, knee and shoulder pain after just 45 min of running. Switched to barefoot (pure and with vibrams) three years ago. Last week ran 50 miles–15 in sf pavement on sunday–and nothing hurts.

    • http://freeradical.me/ kowsik

      Bret, that’s awesome! How long did it take you to fully (running 20+ miles/week) transition to barefoot running?

  • Kyle Chaffee

    Short Movie I made about being barefoot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6V9rDCBM58
    Please share if you enjoyed it! :)