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Barefoot and Barefoot Shoes - Are They Better for You?

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Updated June 19, 2014

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Barefoot in Grass - Full Size

Barefoot

Wendy Bumgardner ©
Vibram FiveFingers

Vibram FiveFingers

Wendy Bumgardner ©

Cory Lundin is a primitive-skills expert who has been barefoot for 20 years. Featured on the first two seasons of the series Dual Survival, he cites research that humans who didn't wear footwear had fewer foot problems than our modern shoe-wearing societies. Is that true?

There aren't a lot of studies, but there are a few significant ones.  One studied the feet of 180 modern skeletons and compared them to 2000 year-old skeletons of a barefoot society.  The results were, "The pathological lesions found in the metatarsals of the three recent human groups generally appeared to be more severe than those found in the pre-pastoral group. This result may support the hypothesis that pathological variation in the metatarsus was affected by habitual behaviour including the wearing of footwear and exposure to modern substrates."  In other words, wearing shoes and walking on modern floors, streets and sidewalks is associated with more foot problems seen in skeletons.

Another study found that going barefoot decreased the stress on knee and hip joints for patients with osteoarthritis.  I wonder whether that was primarily due to gait changes or due to just not having an extra half pound to a pound of weight on each foot. As a walking coach, I encourage most walkers to avoid extra-heavy shoes and to not wear ankle weights.

Barefoot and Minimalist Shoes
I see more and more people wearing the foot-shaped Vibram FiveFingers shoes at races or just around town. Minimalist shoes often claim to help you achieve a more natural running or walking gait. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) reports on a study by Caitlin McCarthy, M.S. and John P. Porcari, Ph.D of the University of Wisconsin to test whether barefoot shoes achieve that claim.

When you run barefoot, you are more likely to land on the ball of your foot and with a knee angle that cushions the impact better than landing on your heel. Barefoot running and barefoot shoes, therefore, might reduce the risk of overuse injuries in runners who are heel strikers. This is why many running shoes have a built-up heel and lots of heel cushioning, to lessen that impact. Running shoes vs. walking shoes

What the study found is that only some runners who have been heel-strikers change to land at mid-foot with barefoot shoes. It doesn't come naturally to the other runners. In order for them to change their gait, they have to work on it consciously and might need a trainer to guide them. Walkers strike with the heel, but because walking has far less impact, it doesn't do the kind of damage that running does.

Walkers and runners who use barefoot shoes also should be mindful that those shoes don't have any motion control. Overpronators who need motion control shoes may end up with overuse injuries when wearing barefoot shoes.

ACE Exercise Physiologist Pete McCall recommends a different use for Vibram FiveFingers -- wear them during your strength-training gym workouts. Lifting weights while wearing barefoot shoes promotes better balance, especially if you were wearing an overly-cushioned running shoe with a built-up heel.

Vibram FiveFingers Refunds
A class-action lawsuit added fuel to the debate as Vibram settled and offered refunds. The suit alleged that Vibram made unsubstantiated health claims that the shoes could help you develop balance and foot strength. Vibram settled without admitting wrongdoing or liability. Vibram FiveFingers purchasers were able to file for refunds, but many rose up in support of their beloved foot-shaped footwear.
More: Vibram FiveFingers Refunds

Sources:

Like Barefoot, Only Better? By Caitlin McCarthy, M.S., John P. Porcari, Ph.D., Tom Kernozek, Ph.D., John Willson, Ph.D., and Carl Foster, Ph.D., with Mark Anders.

B. Zipfela, L.R. Bergerab, "Shod versus unshod: The emergence of forefoot pathology in modern humans?" The Foot. Volume 17, Issue 4, Pages 205-213 (December 2007)

Shakoor N, Block JA (2006). "Walking barefoot decreases loading on the lower extremity joints in knee osteoarthritis". Arthritis Rheum. 54 (9): 2923-7. doi:10.1002/art.2212

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