The Primal Perks Of Barefoot Running

11 min read
What You're About To Get Into
– The major benefits of barefoot running
– Why conventional running shoes are getting you injured
– Whether minimalist shoes provide a similar upgrade

From Bare Soles To The Modern Running Shoe

There are few thoughts that can make you wince harder than the prospect of getting glass shards wedged in your feet. But it may be a risk worth taking, especially if you don’t like the idea of your body breaking down. It’s not so much experimental, as it is a jog back to evolutionary roots. If you’re already immersed in the antiprogressive concepts of carnivore nutrition and digital detoxes, then barefoot running could be another feather for the ancestral lifestyle cap.

On the vast rolling steppes over the Paleolithic, our ancestors had mastered the art of persistence hunting. An antelope nudged into a sprint could easily outpace a human. But over long distances, we were the apex runners. All we had to do was keep track of the fleeing antelope, and wait for it to be battered into submission by a sweltering sun. Persistence hunting was a unique human skill that showcased four traits. 

  • We considered meat worth the effort
  • Hunted in packs
  • Were specialised to sweat away the heat
  • Spent plenty of time running on bare naked feet

None of this is to suggest that sandals are another disease of the agricultural revolution. We figured out the perks of footwear as far back as 40,000 BC. There’s plenty of evidence suggesting that sandals were a common sight by 3000 BC, during the Neolithic. Sandals have a wonderful habit of preventing unwanted infections, and make traversing large distances a little more comfortable. But your average 3000 BC minimalist footwear looks nothing like modern running shoes. 

Neolithic footwear fashion may have retreated into backwaters over recent centuries, but it never really died off. The Tarahumara tribe in Mexico were faced with the threat of the Conquistadors in the 16th century, and chose to melt into a maze of canyons, continuing to practice persistence hunting to this. They can run as much as 100 miles over high-altitude terrain, in sandals. This tribe of minimalists served as the inspiration for Chris Macdougal’s book, Born To Run. Their attitude towards running is in stark contrast to comfort-happy neighbourhood joggers.

The modern running shoe didn’t appear until 1970, capitalising on a resurgent popular interest in jogging. This coincided nicely with the rise of the ‘eat less move more’ theory, encouraging the weight-conscious folk to hit the pavement and whip up a sweat. Jogging provided an easy low-cost option for burning calories, and to meet the burgeoning demand, the footwear industry had to evolve. Up to that point, running shoes were simple things with little cushioning, no arch support, and no lift in the heel.

But when you usher in a population of novices to a new exercise regime, people tend to get injured. With these uncushioned shoes, each landed stride meant high impact, and with enough repetition, something broke down. So the likes of Nike and Adidas responded by adding more heel support and stability, protecting the foot from unrelenting pavements.

The Issue With Conventional Shoes

Except running injuries have continued to get worse. Despite the monumental research and money being poured in. From 1979 to 2002, knee injuries as a percentage of all runner injuries, climbed from 30.5% to 42%. Up to 79% of runners are injured in a given year

Injuries are a fact of life with weekend and professional runners alike. There are just so many things that can go wrong when your feet are repeatedly pounding the pavement, mile after mile. The average runner strikes the ground 600 times per kilometer. Even if you get your gait measured by an expert, buy the fanciest shoes that are tailor-made for your striking pattern, you’re still tempting fate each time you head out for a run. There are two broad categories that compass the majority of runner’s injuries.

Over-Use – Tissue Inflammation

Plantar fasciitis
ITB friction syndrome
Patellar tendinopathy
Medial plica syndrome

Wear And Tear – Degenerative Changes

The meniscal cartilages
The articular cartilage

Often the advice here is to programme in rest days to prevent overtraining. But if we were to accept these as an inevitable consequence of excess running, then that flies in the face of our ancestral past. Your average hunter in the Paleolithic didn’t have the luxury of waking up one day and deciding his knee was feeling too tender. His tribe would have been counting on him to put meat on the table. Rest days weren’t down to individual evidence.

The author Chris Macdougal was fascinated by the lack of injuries amongst the Tarahumara. Hundreds of miles clocked each week, over rocky terrain, and no scars to show for it. These guys dominated ultra-distance races, while bringing sandals to a party of custom-made trainers. 

The story of the Tarahumara has been part of what has driven the recent trend of minimalist footwear. The footwear industry acknowledged the counter-shift with the Nike Free in 2005, and the Vibram Five Fingers in 2006. Much of the support was stripped, leaving a shoe that served simply to protect the foot from environmental elements. Exactly like the sandals of the Tarahumara, and the remains dug up from the Neolithic period 5000 years ago. Sometimes technology ends up being more harm than it’s worth.

The crux of the issue with modern running shoes, which compounded the problem of earlier 20th century versions, is the loss of proprioception in the foot. When you’re protected by bouncy soles, there’s no feedback directing your gait. This harkens to a fundamental truth of biology. Movement is based on making predictions, and correcting the errors with sensory information. When the foot is cushioned and tightly bunched up, there’s nothing to correct improper movement. 

To see this in action, take off your shoes and jump up while landing on your heels. The shockwave driving up to the top of the skull won’t feel pleasant. That’s the feedback you’re looking for, the type that encourages you to fix the next attempt. And that’s exactly how people are running with classic footwear. The heel strikes the ground first, sending a wave of impact up from the ankle. Done over and over again, even a solid pair of shoes won’t save you.

With barefoot running on the other hand, forefoot and midfoot strikes come into play, preventing excessive impact from getting past the ankle. The foot musculature also gets recruited as a result of the extra pronation, and the arch is passively stretched during the entire first half of the stretch. Your foot actually gets in some training. Then there’s the direct feedback from planting feet on mother earth. On unforgivingly hard ground, the legs respond by losing some of their stiffness, lessening the impact. Meanwhile, with conventional shoes, all these little muscles get supported out of existence, like lifting with an overzealous spotter.

The Minimalist Solution

One study looked into this matter with the help of the Tarahumara. 13 men who habitually wore minimalist sandals, 10 with the typical cushioned heels and arch support. When their running gait was analysed, the results matched up. The minimally shod Tarahumarans used 40% by midfoot strikes, 30% on the forefoot, and 30% with rearfoot. The modern competition had 75% as rearfoot strikes, and 25% on the midfoot. Even amongst runners used to covering a hundred miles at a time, there was a preponderance for heel striking with conventional shoes. 

These shoes shut off proprioception, promote high-impact heel striking, limit ankle mobility, and weaken the arch. Effectively leading to flat feet. We’re simply not built to run with kangaroo springs. We’ve got our own built-in springs, and that dynamism is neutered by cushioned shoes. There’s more to this than the fear of injuries. Oxygen consumption has also shown to be higher with conventional shoes. You’re literally wasting energy and breaking down with one swoop of technology. 

The solution isn’t necessarily to shun all footwear, wiggle your toes into bare soil, and chase after a white-tailed deer with your coworkers till it drops out of exhaustion. The template of the primal ancestor doesn’t have to be followed to the letter. You can settle for copying a few ideas over, and you’ll still reap seismic rewards. With the concept of barefoot running, opting for minimalist footwear still provides you with many of the benefits. Just be wary of the ones that try and sit in the middle between comfort and barefoot. There’s some evidence suggesting they cause even more impact than conventional shoes. So you’re best off looking for actual minimalist shoes, like Vivo Barefoot and Vibram Five Fingers.

There have been cases of people getting injured after transitioning to barefoot running, and they do highlight the importance of transitioning slowly. There’s a ton of rewiring and strengthening that needs to take place in order to naturalise the barefoot gait. It might be practical to start off walking for 30 minutes, then dividing that into three 10 minute intervals, steadily progressing towards running in each of those intervals. Eventually, you’ll be galloping along just like your ancestors from 600 generations ago.

But running is exhausting, and can’t be a 24/7 job, unless you’re camped in those canyons in Mexico. So what about the rest of the time? In case you prefer to walk to get places, the differences aren’t necessarily going to be as profound between minimalist and conventional footwear. But it certainly stacks up, especially if you’re in the habit of clocking up over 10,000 steps each day. That’s plenty of time to develop strong calluses that protect the skin, without harming proprioception. Foot striking will also be lighter, which surely amounts to better injury prevention when strung over the long term. Not to mention walking on naked ground can feel quite therapeutic, even without the pseudoscientific ideas of negative ions. I wouldn’t put any stock in ‘grounding’ techniques, but it’s still a natural sensation that picks up a few extra microbes for your gut biome.

Barefoot lifting also makes perfect sense in some situations, such as when performing deadlifts. Any heel lift just takes you further away from the ground, increasing the bar path, and therefore the difficulty. Going raw can also improve foot stability, and with it, hip drive. Many lifters opt to go with long socks during deadlifts, to prevent the bar from scraping the shins.

In the case of general minimalist footwear, try to kick things off by wearing them for just one to two hours a day, then gradually scaling it up over the course of several months. It can take up to 6-12 months for the inner foot muscles to strengthen up, and you’ll want to transition slowly to keep time with that glacial pace.

The Benefits Of Barefoot And Minimalist Running

The proposition of barefoot running strikes a similar chord to the carnivore diet. Much like the all-meat affair, it accepts that modern inroads into comfort and efficiency have come bearing consequences. After all the incredible progress we’ve made across the millennia, with the bubble of humanity incessantly pushing out into the universe, it might be time to look back at our footsteps.

The feet are your foundation, the only part of the anatomy that repeatedly comes into contact with the ground. In that sense, if you’re suffering from joint pain or poor mobility, the work starts with the soles of the feet. It may be time to ditch the custom-made running shoes and save yourself a fortune in medical bills and lost gains.

The Perks
Reduce impact and strain by eliminating heel striking
Improve foot proprioception for better running mechanics
Which in turn improves stability, mobility, coordination, and balance
Natural arch support by recruiting the foot musculature

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