Barefoot Running

The 2-hour marathon barrier will be broken soon, and the runner to break it may be the one bold enough to race barefoot.

Could a shoeless marathoner really go under two hours?

The two-hour marathon barrier will be broken soon, and there’s a real likelihood it will be broken by someone with an edge. Like other edges in sports, it will be something out of the ordinary. In this case, it could be someone who defies the shoe companies, forgoes the short-term money, and runs barefoot.

There’s a reason some of today’s great runners, especially the East Africans — who grew up barefoot and may have developed significantly better speed because of it — don’t go unshod. It’s because of shoe-company contracts. Money talks, as they say, or in this case some may just take the money and run. But simple math could soon play a role here, as an annual shoe sponsorship of $20,000, $40,000 or even $80,000 or more, is really a pittance compared to the fortune the greatest marathoner of all time will be worth — it could be 100 times that or more.

Shoes are a dilemma, a difficult situation that will not go away because most athletes use footwear in most sports. The common problem associated with all footwear is that shoes reduce movement economy. Finding the best-fitting footwear will result in reducing the extent of the lost economy. But eliminating the shoe altogether could allow an athlete to get the most from the feet. Improvement in running economy leads to faster race paces — shoes can’t help one run faster. Dr. Mercer Rang, legendary orthopedic surgeon and researcher said that,“Shoes do no more for the foot than a hat does for the brain.”

Among the marvels of human physiology is the return-energy system in the feet. We actually take gravitational impact forces — the pounding of each step into the ground — and convert it to more useful energy that propels us forward. As a runner’s foot hits the road, impact energy is first stored in the muscles and tendons. Quickly, 95 percent of this energy is then used to help spring the body forward like a pogo stick. This mechanism astoundingly provides about half the energy required for leg and foot muscle propulsion, with the other half coming from a combination of fat and sugar.

This is more than extra energy. It’s what separates the lead pack from those trailing behind. Just by significantly improving this “recoil energy,” a 2:04 marathoner may be within reach of 1:59 right now. Without shoes.

Shoes impair this important return-energy process in a number of common ways, resulting in some or much of the impact energy dissipated and lost:

  • Promoting heel-strike instead of mid- or forefoot strike.
  • Allowing over-striding.
  • Not properly or precisely matching the foot.
  • Promoting muscle imbalance in the legs or feet.

Impairment of the return-energy process requires the runner to make up for this deficit by contracting muscles, using more energy from body stores. The result is that running economy is reduced, the gait worsens, and, as an adaptation, the pace slows.

Another limiting factor is the weight of shoes. Each ounce reduces running economy, slowing race pace. How much can shoe weight add to one’s marathon time? This could be about a minute or more for every 3.5-ounces of shoe, and most running shoes are five ounces or more.

Every competitor at every level in every sport seeks an edge. It’s as much a part of the journey as the ultimate performance goal — an intense battle of intellectual and emotional searches every athlete goes through, sometimes only hidden deep inside. Coaches and athletes comb through the scientific literature and online blogs, while quietly seeking the key from the latest winner.

But the secret of the edge is an illusion, at least in how it is commonly perceived. Our real edge is being human — the proof is that we are still here as a species. Today’s human endurance athletes take survival for granted, and are free to enjoy competitive events that regularly take place around the globe. A very small number of runners make a good living by performing. In most cases, there’s a direct correlation between race pace and purse.

The ultimate race is now counting down. Like breaking the 4-minute mile, seen as an athletic impossibility in the years leading up to that famous day on May 6, 1954, when Roger Gilbert Bannister ran 3:59.4, the two-hour marathon barrier stands waiting to be broken. This feat will be beyond the marvel of a world record, an Olympic gold, or World Championship. The first to 1:59 will achieve much more. He will be crowned a king, a god, and will be sought after for worldly opinions, training tips, and, of course, the edge he must surely have had.

A man will do it first, followed by a woman years afterwards, perhaps around the time of another key woman’s feat: the first female sub four-minute mile.

The real question is who will be bold enough to forgo today’s relatively small stipends from shoe companies and stride unshod into future athletic eminence and fortune?

Dr. Phil Maffetone

18 Comments

  • James says:

    With all the recent doping speculation and allegations in athletics. I think a sub 2hr time will be met with a big dose of scepticism.

    James

  • Phil;

    Great article! I live the thinking behind it and the points you make. I only wear vibrams and as thin a pair as I can find unless going hiking. I will never consider running myself, as I abhor it beyond words. That doesn’t stop my dad or 2 of my brothers, one who is training (over-training) for the NY Marathon this fall. He follows someone’s training regime and his body ends up having issues which he brings to me when he is beyond broken and it interferes with his training schedule. I forwarded him this article. Glad you are well. Keep thinking and living outside the box.

    Dr. Rick Huntoon

  • This post seems like so much opinion and so little fact. I have several Physical Therapist and doctor friends and they only reason they would ever recommenced barefoot running is to drum up more business. Does Dr. Mercer Rang recommend barefoot running? For everyone? Just for those that grew up running with no shoes? Or was this quote taken out of context? Can you cite any study that recommends barefoot running and if so, are there any caveats? Personally my feet do now absorb impact very well so if I ran without shoes I would constantly injure myself. And although shoes may let you do some things that are less efficient when running, they do not promote them. Training/technique or the lack thereof promotes efficient or less efficient running don’t you think?

    • Martin:

      The best way to think about it is that Dr. Mercer Rang recommends barefoot running in the same vein that we recommend that people eat 12 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. If, for example, we gave that amount of fruits and veggies to a newborn, we’d probably do a lot of damage, since their digestive system can’t take all that fiber, let alone all that volume of food. Ditto for feet.

      The feet of the vast majority of people are absolutely unprepared for barefoot running. But if they were prepared for barefoot running through a period of development and adaptation, you’d probably end up as a much more resilient runner. That said, both technique and training are extremely important (maybe even more so) in developing efficient running, and are extremely important in the process of developing the capability to run barefoot.

      So strictly speaking, it’s not that barefoot running itself reduces your likelihood of injury (although barefoot walking and running can be a powerful rehabilitation tool, if used correctly). It’s that an athlete with the capability to run barefoot at great speed implies a high degree of resilience. An athlete with a high degree of resilience is one that can tolerate a high degree of training volume. An athlete that can tolerate a high degree of training volume is an extremely powerful endurance athlete. Go figure.

      The interplay between the increased sensation and feedback produced by running barefoot, in combination with training volume and the focus on technique would be a powerful training tool. We never intended to mean that barefoot running alone makes a powerful runner.

      • Kate says:

        Nicely said, Ivan,

        Martin, the key is as Ivan said.

        Barefooting lets your body sense the impact and place the foot correctly. I prefer a slightly rough surface to give more feedback to the nerves in the soles of my feet ’cause it keeps good form (preventing pushoff), but after almost five years barefoot, I can run on even a smooth surface in perfect, effortless form. The main benefit to competitive runners that I can feel even in my jogs is increased muscle in my legs, and excellent stretch in my achilles. Read KenBob Saxton’s book for ideas, but mostly just take it easy, and don’t do anything that hurts. You are doing it wrong if it hurts. Ease your pace til you find the sweet spot.

        I’m 46 and a slacker who runs for health and the way it feels (good). I stick to the 180 principal now, which dropped my pulse 15 points at my normal 20 minute run pace over about 3 weeks of 3x/week runs. My barefooting has been five or so years, no injuries, and no need for research data to tell me what I can feel and measure myself. You’ll be glad you switch, and able to run better even in shoes.

  • Kate says:

    I love the challenge you’ve staged in this post – maybe we barefooters should crowdfund an equivalent sponsorship for a barefoot marathoner who has been forced into shoes by the money. I will never wear shoes again – 5 years of no pain/injury and happily padding along.

  • I read on yahoo news on 8-2-2015 that as many as 50% of all medalists in long distances are suspect of blood doping. Can you address this article. Lassie Viren admited to blood doping many years after winning.

    Is this really like tour de france 2.0?

    Jimmer

    • Jimmer:

      It could be. You’ve probably heard of the doping scandal currently surrounding Alberto Salazar, head coach of the Nike Oregon Project. There’s a lot of doping going on. Do you mean to say that you’d like to see an article on doping on the site?

  • Ian says:

    That’s probably a very good prediction! It would be interesting to calculate the work involved in accelerating shoes though the length of a Marathon. Considering each foot stops dead on the ground and then has to accelerate back up to speed with each step – that’s going to be a lot of work for a 3.5 to 5 oz shoe!

    Only one thing I’d like to add. In efficient running forward propulsion should come mainly from gravity! The rebound with elastic energy is undoubtedly used to prevent the centre of mass from losing height – not for propulsion. It’s a bit like how a sail boat tacks against the wind. The centre of mass is deflected forwards as it falls. This is the real reason why over-striding is so inefficient and damaging.

    • Ian:

      You’re absolutely right. In fact, strictly speaking, gravity isn’t propelling anything, in the sense “that” true propulsion only exists in machines such as a rocket ship, which can move irrespective of a point of support. (This is no doubt part of your point). Gravity is letting us fall forward.

      The reason I’m so nitpicky is because I recently read someone wondering why gravity had a role in forward propulsion in running, since, according to this person, the vector of forward movement is orthogonal to the direction of the force of gravity.” Since orthogonal vectors wouldn’t affect each other in that way, he was quite confused. What he missed was that forward movement looks orthogonal to the force of gravity because the rotation of bodyweight around the point of support (the foot) is complemented by a lengthening of the lever (the leg), meaning that a rotational force looks like a linear force.

  • Phil Grondin says:

    Absolutely right Dr. Phil! Shoes are not a help when racing but a hindrance. I ran cross-country in high school and always ran barefoot. When I was forced to wear shoes I always ran slower. For me it wasn’t so much the weight of the shoes, but more so, it was that springy, rebound effect that I felt when running barefoot that helped me run faster. Thank you so much for enlightening us about running, racing, and about breaking through barriers.
    I now have no doubt that the 1:59 marathon will happen within the next year or two.
    Best regards,
    Phil Grondin
    San Diego. CA

  • Camm says:

    Ivan,

    It seems to me that one can agree with the benefits of “barefooting” and disagree about the universality of its use in all situations. Some small and increasing doses of going barefoot MAY in fact produce a more balanced response and increasing overall health benefits. However, it seems dangerous to imply that its good for everyone because its good for yourself or SOME people. I would very much like to read some research on its impact on a diverse group (not elite or semi-elite) of athletes and non-athletes alike.

    Could it not be likely that there are a significant group of the population that would incur more harm that good by increasing amounts of barefooting to the point of running barefoot (or at least in the equivalent of a glove for the foot)? Or am I missing something entirely?

    I tend to agree that “barefooting” has benefits, but most claims about the universal value of something like this that doesn’t appear to take full account of the massive differences in the individuals that may undertake this exercise with little if any instruction — could prove dangerous.

    • Camm:

      Your reservations about using barefooting as a corrective for all foot problems is very appropriate. Incidentally, that is why I led my answer to your previous comment with “going barefoot is a good correction for many [but not all] foot problems.”

      To harken back to that same comment, the population that would incur more harm than good (or just “harm”) by walking barefoot are people with a “variety of gait problems (say, rigidity in the big toe joint) that make it very difficult for the body to adapt to the signals that walking barefoot is giving it.”

      Let me restate this. Everybody who does NOT respond well to gradually increasing barefooting also has quite serious problems in the foot. This could be a lack of sensation leading to poor motor control, rigid foot structures (such as those present in advanced arthritis by having worn heels too long), or irreversible developmental problems for example due to having used baby walkers (as opposed to reversible developmental problems where baby walkers may have been implicated).

      I bring up baby walkers in particular because they tend to lead to overpronation: the only function of baby walkers is to allow the baby to put weight on their lower limbs when they are physiologically not ready to do so, leading to chronic flattening of the medial arch of the foot. (If they were ready to walk on their own, they wouldn’t need the baby walker).

      All this said, if someone has healthy foot structures that were not developmentally deformed (and do not have deformations due to genetic defects), but say, have weak or uncoordinated muscles, they can benefit from gradual barefooting. There is no structurally healthy foot that becomes damaged by gradual adaptations to barefooting. Let me put this another way: if a foot that you believe to be structurally healthy becomes damaged as you gradually attempt to adapt it to barefooting, it’s time to go looking for a previously unknown, previously existing structural problem, because you’ll find it.

      (“Healthy foot structures” are different from “healthy motor patterns,” and both are different from “strong foot structures”).

      This is where we start to move towards your particular situation: if—that’s a big if—your fallen arches are due to muscle weakness or poor muscle coordination, there’s an excellent chance that gradually increasing barefooting will help you. Insofar as the cause of your fallen arches is due to entrenched structural problems of the foot, barefooting by itself, without additional clinical interventions, will be increasingly harmful. An important note to make is that there probably is an exercise or set of exercises that will target a specific condition (that is not due to structural issues) far better and more effectively than barefooting. But as a general and nonspecific corrective, barefooting can still be helpful (and not damaging) in the previously mentioned contexts.

      To answer the question you pose in your other comment, one can develop a normal arch of the foot in the same situations where someone can go from having a flat lower back to a normally curved lower back: when the flattened arch or flattened back wasn’t caused by a structural problem and instead was due to muscle weakness or poor muscle patterning locally or elsewhere in the body. This also points to the “seriousness” issue: when the problem is due to very serious muscle weakness or very poor muscle patterning, it’s overwhelmingly (but not always) reversible, although it takes more time. When the problem is due to very serious structural damage or abnormalities, it’s overwhelmingly (but not always) irreversible, barring surgery.

      All this said, we can’t really know which of these two is your particular situation over a comment section. Your best bet is to go to a gait specialist who can tell you whether your situation encompasses the possibility of a healing trajectory that concludes with the permanent removal of orthotics.

  • Ryan says:

    I am returning to running after a second metatarsal fracture occurred during my indoor track season. I am returning as a barefoot runner, but training programs are few and far between. Any recommendations on a barefoot program?

  • You write “Each ounce reduces running economy, slowing race pace.”, but it seems to me that it was found this to be true only starting from a specific weight, under which the presence of the shoe is negligible or even wished for improving economy (see for instance Franz JR, Wierzbinski CM, Kram R. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Aug; 44(8):1519-25. and many others).
    This and other unilateral views on barefoot running are not going to help the cause. Personally, I am a strong advocate of midfoot/forefoot strike due to my experience s an athlete. As a scientist however, I find it useful and fair to support with real science any statement in favour or against any running condition (shod, barefoot, minimalist, rearfoot strike, midfoot strike, etc…).
    Even if I agree with many of your statements, I think it would be fair for the general audience to face both pros and cons and let them decide. For every 10 papers suggesting that barefoot running is more economical than shod running, I can find other 10 saying the contrary. And maybe other 10 finding no differences at all. I guess this sums up my point of view.
    Thank you for the great article!

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