Baring your soles

Britney Jones
23 January 2012

Vintage Nike Waffle Racer - Image by Kazuhiro Keino, Flickr

A new trend emerging in the running world is taking things back to basics.

Finding a pair of running shoes has become a task requiring a degree in biomechanics due to the vast number of individualized options available. There are motion control shoes for over pronators (when the foot rolls inward and the arch flattens), stability shoes for those with normal gait, and shoes with cushioned soles for supinators (when the runner’s weight rests on the outer edge of the foot). Sprinters require different support than marathon runners, and those using an elliptical trainer need another type of shoe altogether.

Did You Know?
One of the first modern running shoes, the Nike Waffle Trainer, was introduced in 1974.

What did runners do before all of these options became available? They ran barefoot! In fact, until relatively recently most runners ran barefoot or wore minimal footwear such as thin moccasins or sandals. As a result, they had shorter strides and tended to hit the ground with the front or middle of the foot. It has only been with the invention of the elevated, cushioned-heel running shoe that runners have been able to strike the ground heel first with comfort.

Did You Know?
Marathon runner Abebe Bikila, from Ethiopia, won a gold medal and set a world record while running barefoot in the Rome Olympic Games of 1960.

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila - Image by Sam Sailor, Wikimedia Commons

So, should you lose the running shoes too? Currently, there seems to be a lack of evidence to prove which footwear option is safest for runners. A study out of Harvard University suggests that running barefoot or with minimal footwear does not result in repetitive stress injuries associated with the high-impact heel-strike technique used by shoe-wearing runners. Of course, this doesn’t account for the fact that barefoot runners in today’s society face the potential of puncture wounds to the feet, from running on unsafe concrete, nails and glass. Shoes help prevent such injuries and make running through city streets or along unpaved paths safer.

However, there has yet to be a study that reports evidence of running shoes reducing injury or enhancing performance. The same can be said for the benefits and risks of running barefoot. The Harvard study cites anecdotal reports of reduced injuries in barefoot runners, but also states that further studies are needed to prove the benefits of this type of running.

Still, with the rise in popularity of barefoot running, 2010 saw the introduction of Vibram FiveFingers® – a minimalist shoe designed to provide a small degree of protection while closely mimicking barefoot conditions. The popularity of this design coupled with the fast-growing barefoot movement has inspired the Nike Free, the Merrell Barefoot and many other minimalist designs.

Until further evidence is available as to which type of footwear is best and safest for the human foot, runners have the opportunity to experiment with a variety of choices – and bare their “soles” if that’s most comfortable.

Learn more!

The Vibram FiveFingers®

Runner’s World: The Barefoot Running Debate

Running barefoot: Did 'Shoeless' Joe have the right idea?


Bramble, D.M. and D.E.Lieberman. 2004.Endurancerunning and the Evolution of Homo.Nature. 432: 345-352.

Collier, R. 2011. The rise of barefoot running. CMAJ. 183: E37-E38. doi:10.1503/cmaj.109-3745

Lieberman, D.E., Venkadesan, M., Werbel, W.A., Daoud, A.I., D’Andrea, S., Davis, I.S., Mang’eni, R.O. and Y. Pitsiladis. 2010. Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature. 463: 531-535.

Squadrone, R., and C. Gallozzi. 2009. Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced barefoot runners. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 49: 6-13.

Article first published April 18, 2011.

Britney Jones

Britney earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary, majoring in biological sciences and minoring in psychology. She then went on to receive a Master’s degree in Biomedical Technology, where she developed a keen interest in health advocacy research. Britney spent two years as a member of the Clinical Research team at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. Currently, she is in her third year of medical school. 

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