Lose your shoes: Is barefoot better?

1984 Women's 3000 meter
1984 Women's 3000 meter

In 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics, the women’s 3000-meter final was marred by controversy when American Mary Decker fell after making contact with Zola Budd, a runner from South Africa who represented Britain (due to the boycott of South African sport).

Although Budd had been setting the pace, she faded to seventh in the end and was booed by the partisan LA audience (Decker would later say that she was inexperienced at running in a pack and, as the trailing runner, was responsible for their contact). Maricica Puica of Romania won the event, and Britain’s Wendy Sly took the silver in a final that was seared into my memory by the televised replays of a stricken Mary Decker, hip injured from her fall, shattered and crying on the infield.

In all of the drama, one of the things that left the greatest impression on me as a high school student and sometime athlete was the simple fact that Zola Budd ran without shoes, an almost unimaginable idea to me at the time. Budd was one of a handful of famous barefoot runners, including Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian marathoner who won his first Olympic gold in 1960 without shoes, Tegla Loroupe, the Kenyan women’s running legend and multiple world record holder, and Ken Bob Saxton, aka ‘Barefoot Ken Bob,’ a marathoner and guru to the shoeless.

I’ve been thinking about barefoot running for a while, oddly enough since I started writing about bare-knuckle punching in no-holds-barred fighting (or ‘mixed martial arts’ like the Ultimate Fighting Championship in its early days). Barefoot running, even more than bare-knuckle boxing, reveals the ways that very simple technologies, if used consistently enough, become part of the developmental niche of the human body, shaping the way that our bones, muscles, tissues, and nervous system develop.

Although this post is not strictly neuroanthropology, I thought I might share some of what I’m working on, in part because I’m interested to hear any feedback people have. In particular, this will focus on how hard it is to sort out what’s ‘natural’ when activity patterns, incredibly variable, are necessary ingredients in the development of biological systems. But also, as it will become clearer in the post, the ways that our nervous system adapt to different situations, such as having heavily padded feet or being barefoot when we run, illustrates well how even unconscious training is a form of phenotypic, non-genetic, adaptation.

Before I go any further, though, if you have anything to say in response to this, I would love to read it. This is my first attempt to put down some thoughts that will be in a chapter of an upcoming book…

I was sparked to finally put this down and post it by an item in Wired Science: ‘To Run Better, Start by Ditching Your Nikes,’ by Dylan Tweeny. (See below for a number of other recent articles online.) Tweeny writes:

Strong evidence shows that thickly cushioned running shoes have done nothing to prevent injury in the 30-odd years since Nike founder Bill Bowerman invented them, researchers say. Some smaller, earlier studies suggest that running in shoes may increase the risk of ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis and other injuries. Runners who wear cheap running shoes have fewer injuries than those wearing expensive trainers. Meanwhile, injuries plague 20 to 80 percent of regular runners every year.

The article shares quotes by a number of barefoot running advocates who argue strongly that running in minimalist shoes, or unshod, reduces the likelihood of injury: ‘After all,’ Tweeny writes in a discussion of the work of Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, ‘we evolved without shoes.’

In the passage, Tweeny refers to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (Clinghan et al. 2008) that found cheap running shoes correlated with better long-term health outcomes than more expensive footwear. Runners who used more expensive running shoes had a pretty shocking 123% higher rate of injury than those in less expensive shoes (see Robbins and Waked 1997). The Robbins and Waked (1997) study directly focused on the relation between deceptive shoe advertising and the force of barefoot subjects’ footfall when they came down on a surface designed to look like shoe padding. Led to believe that the surface was protecting them, people changed their running style in ways that increased impact.

The rate of injuries among runners, including the relatively consistent injury rate despite ‘improvements’ in shoe technology, make some observers suspicious that shoes might be causing, rather than protecting against, injury, even if the link is indirect through shifts in technique or even the population that can participate. Ross Tucker and Anthony Dugas of The Science of Sport point out that there are, in fact, many possible explanations for changes in injury rates – or changing reasons why rates remain constant – such as the demographic factor that many runners in the 1990s might be in significantly worse physical condition than runners in the 1970s as the hobby spread to less-fit individuals. But Tucker and Dugas, too, conclude that certain types of running shoes may not be good for all distance runners, a conclusion supported by a range of research (see, e.g., Richards, Magin and Callister 2009).

In a review of research on barefoot running and training, Michael Wharburton (2001) suggests that running and walking without shoes may decrease acute injury rates from accidents (sprains), diminish chronic injuries from repeated shock (among them, plantar fasciitis), and increase movement economy, because additional weight on the feet is harder to carry while running than weight elsewhere (see Divert et al. 2008). Wharburton asks in his conclusion why more runners don’t opt to run barefoot, suggesting it might be fear of puncture wounds, thermal problems, or even misperceptions about the dangers. He does allow that in inclement weather and with certain biomechanical problems, shoes would be essential to compensate for lower limb issues (see Burge 2001 for reservations about Wharburton’s advice, especially with a range of medical conditions that she details – highly recommended if you’re considering running barefoot but have some pre-existing foot problems or other health issues).

A number of groups advocate barefoot running for a host of reasons: health, injury prevention, greater sensation, enjoyment, and overall well-being (e.g., Driscoll 2004; Robbins and Gouw 1990). Especially prominent websites include
Barefoot Ken Bob, Barefoot Ted, and evangelist Barefoot Rick (who’s all about saving soles… I know, ‘ouch.’ Sorry, Rick.). A recent book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall specifically discusses the Tarahumara Indians, who run extraordinarily long races through rough country in sandals or barefoot. The interest in barefoot running and the possibility that some types of shoes may be increasing problems for devoted runners has produced a spate of articles (see the list at the end of this article for a few).

As Ross and Jonathan have written of their own series of posts on running shoes, the topic is extremely controversial, provoking heated discussion, enthusiastic discussion, and strong opinions, no doubt because ‘shoes, more than any other topic, touches runners where it counts – their feet! And, unfortunately, their wallets, for it’s still the largest expense a runner incurs for the sport.’

They suggest that the trend in shoe design is toward very neutral (not motion controlling), cushioned shoes that are lighter than previous generations of footwear. In addition, virtually every shoe company has produced a ‘barefoot’ shoe design, minimalist footwear designed to mimic the dynamics of barefoot running. The Vibram Five Fingers, a glove-like light shoe, for example, was named by Time Magazine one of the Inventions of the Year in 2007. Vibram is even recruiting research subjects for Prof. Lieberman’s research on barefoot running dynamics.

I should point out that I have no personal interest in any shoe company, or in criticizing any shoe company. I run with shoes (when I run), but I do like to run barefoot on the beach whenever I can. And my border collie, Louie, is a fanatic about barefoot running…

Shoes, padding and running technique

PF-PainAreasThe padding in running shoes changes the way that we run, even though we may be completely unconscious that our gait has compensated for the change in the biomechanical properties of the feet produced by footgear (see Divert et al. 2005; but c.f. De Wit et al. 2000).

Robbins and Gouw (1991) argue that, with padded shoes, ‘a perceptual illusion is created whereby perceived impact is lower than actual impact, which results in inadequate impact-moderating behavior and consequent injury.’ That is, the perception of impact that is diminished by modern ‘protection’ causes runners to neglect basic biomechanical adaptations to decrease stress on the legs, such as shortening the stride, changing the point of footfall, or increasing bend in the knees slightly.

Joseph Froncioni, an orthopedic surgeon, describes at length the way that shoes change the dynamics of running. Although the assertion that barefoot runners come down on the ball of the foot is controversial (some proponents and scholars argue that barefoot runners come down on the middle-outside of the foot; see Ross Tucker’s post on this debate), quite a bit of his description stands up:

During barefoot running, the ball of the foot strikes the ground first and immediately starts sending signals to the spinal cord and brain about the magnitude of impact and shear, getting most of its clues about this from the skin contact with the surface irregularities of the ground. Take away this contact by adding a cushioned substance and you immediately fool the system into underestimating the impact. Add a raised heel and the shod runner is forced to land on it. Strap the cushioning on tightly with the aid of a sophisticated lacing system and you block out shear as well, throwing the shock-absorption system even further into the dark…. The cushioned midsole of the modern running shoe robs the system of important sensory information necessary for ankle, knee and hip response to impact. The arch support (or orthotic) in modern running shoes not only prevents the arch suspension system from absorbing energy by preventing flattening but eventually leads to intrinsic muscle atrophy and complete loss of active muscular control of the arch leaving only the inelastic plantar fascia as a checkrein to flattening. The barefoot runner’s ‘foot position awareness sense’ which relies heavily on sensory input from the sole of the foot minimizes his risk of sustaining an ankle sprain on uneven ground. The shod runner is at marked increased risk of ankle sprains because his ‘foot position awareness sense’ is handicapped by the paucity of sensations coming from his soles.

Froncioni highlights here three distinctive problems with shoes in the dynamics of running: the first, a decrease in sensory information available through the foot; second, a shift in the position of the foot from a changed motion including an earlier heal strike and longer stride; and, third, an erosion of the impact-absorbing dynamics of the lower body, especially of the arch of the foot arising from both mechanical properties of the shoe and the previous two problems. Some of these detrimental effects are immediate, but others are gradual and cumulative, conditioning the body in patterns of behaviour and reaction that amount to a kind of adverse training that can result in chronic injury.

After a lengthy discussion in the comments on the Science of Sports blog posting on barefoot and shod running, Ross Tucker concludes that, in his opinion, the primary reason shoes cause injury is not the placement of the foot when it strikes the ground but the fact that heavily padded, stiff-soled shoes diminish sensation in the feet from the ground (similar to what Robbins and Gouw 1991 conclude, though they do so on the basis of less data). Without sufficient sensation, the foot and leg do not compensate as well for the mechanics of running; the feedback cycle is stifled and the dynamic suffers.

Research on foot impact by Robbins and Waked (1997) suggests that balance and impact are closely related, that a person coming down on a soft surface (like a gymnast landing on a thick pad or runner on a spongy shoe) intentionally, though non-consciously, comes down harder in order to find a stable surface. The spongier the landing material, theoretically, the harder the impact because the body seeks to compress the material to find some sort of stable footing.

According to Froncioni, shoes don’t simply disrupt the sensory feedback-control cycle through proprioception or the sense of impact through the legs, but also because wearing shoes changes the way that runners actively pursue sensory information through vision and use their bodies. That is, when we run in heavily cushioned shoes, we look differently and hurl our body against unknown surfaces.

The barefoot runner is constantly alert scanning the ground before him for irregularities and dangers that might cause him injury. The barefoot runner is a cautious runner and actively changes his landing strategy to prevent injury. He treads lightly. The shod runner is bombarded by convincing advertising stating or implying that the shoe he is wearing will protect him well over any terrain and he becomes a careless runner. He is heavy footed.

The loss of sensation in the feet is analogous to the effects of a degenerative disease, ironically enough. That is, by mimicking the long-term effects of neuro-degenerative conditions, shoes may bring on other forms of degeneration in the lower limbs. As Froncioni writes:

Finally, certain diseases in humans can cause a gradual destruction of the sensory nerve endings in the foot (and elsewhere) resulting in a significant increase in lower extremity injuries. Diabetes and tertiary syphilis are two. Extremities so affected are termed ‘neuropathic’. The shod runner, because of his sensory deprivation and high risk of injury may be termed as having ‘pseudo-neuropathic’ feet, a term coined by Robbins.

This and previous two drop quotes from Athletic Footwear and Running Injuries by Joseph Froncioni.

Conditions such as diabetes can throw off the fine orchestration of muscles in the feet that absorb and transfer force, as decreased sensitivity and response cause delays of dynamic reactions in the foot muscles (see Abbound 2002: 171, and for a review). As we’ve already discussed here on Neuroanthropology.net, some researchers who study loss of stability in older people point to diminished sensitivity in the feet as a potential contributing cause of falling. Not surprisingly, one of the prescriptions for people with this condition is to wear thin-soled shoes or, if the condition is worse, ‘high-tops’ so that sensation on the ankles can substitute for sensation on the soles of the feet.

Shoes as developmental niche for feet

People who habitually wear shoes wind up shaping their feet developmentally in distinctive ways. From the point of view of our feet – if I can be so anthropomorphizing – the shoe becomes the ‘environment’ in which feet are grown. Factors like temperature, abrasion, constriction, and the like become the environment with which the foot must contend adapt to, and rely upon. Shoes are a kind of developmental niche for feet, and like any ecological niche, exert their own influence on the anatomical unfolding of the foot’s anatomy. Of course, other factors in addition to shoes make up the foot’s ‘environment’, such as the very act and amount of walking we do, the surfaces we walk on, the sorts of forces exerted upon the bones in the feet by factors like our body size, built environment, athletic activities… and all of these can be affected by shoes, too.

In other words, from the point of view of the feet, a whole constellation of things make up the developmental environment, some of which are truly ‘outside’ us – like cold or wet or surfaces – but some of which are very much under human control, including activity patterns and habitual footwear. To the foot, the leg is part of the environment, and how the leg is used becomes one of the environmental factors feeding into how the feet develop. If we wear a pair of shoes that changes how our legs work (such as high heels or thickly-soled running shoes), these shoes affect the feet directly, but they also impact the feet indirectly through what they do to the leg and the dynamics of our gait and our patterns of activity.

In the simplest sense, shoes are designed to address what the shoe designers perceive as inadequacies in the human foot, whether these inadequacies are mechanical or aesthetic. Adam Sternbergh (2008) explained:

For decades, the guiding principle of shoe design has been to compensate for the perceived deficiencies of the human foot. Since it hurts to strike your heel on the ground, nearly all shoes provide a structure to lift the heel. And because walking on hard surfaces can be painful, we wrap our feet in padding. Many people suffer from flat feet or fallen arches, so we wear shoes with built-in arch supports, to help hold our arches up.

Of course, other design elements enter the mix along the way: the desire to be colour coordinated, the elongation of the leg provided by high heels, the undeniable cool of the tassel, the practicality of Velcro quick-release closures on kids shoes. But the basic ‘functional’ design elements of shoes are relatively consistent since the advent of modern, protective footwear (that is, providing more than simply insulation against cold by wrapping fabric or skin around the foot).

The basic effect of shoes on feet is relatively consistent as well. First, the sole of the shod foot does not develop the hardness that the unshod develop. Anyone who has ever lived in a variable climate (like I did growing up in St. Louis) probably has the experience of their feet fluctuating seasonally in toughness, going from soft and tender when constantly protected during the winter, swaddled in thick socks and insulating shoes, to toughened when barefoot or wearing sandals in the summer. When I worked as a lifeguard, by mid-July I could walk across the sun-heated asphalt parking lot at midday without my shoes. At the start of the summer, pampered winter feet were sensitive to every pebble or crack in the pavement.

In a study of shoe-wearing and habitually barefoot Chinese populations, Sim-Fook and Hodgson (1958: 1059) found:

The feet of the non-shoe-wearing populations showed thick soles with prominent skin creases apart from many minor lacerations due to traumata. The pachydermatous [!!] skin on the sole of the foot had an extraordinarily thick keratinized layer about 0.5 to one centimeter thick which permitted the individual to walk about without any discomfort. Although thick and tough, the skin was pliable and was marked by deep transverse folds which were similar to the lines of joint flexion found on the palm of the hand…

(Before I go any further, ‘pachydermatous’ is the coolest word EVER…)

Even though the groups studied spent quite a bit of time standing in water and unshod, Sim-Fook and Hodgson did not find many complaints about foot health, in part because their soles were so resilient and pliable, but also because the unshod did not have the constant low level friction on their feet provided by shoes. Ironically, this constant, low pressure against the foot can produce more severe chronic injury and malformation than the once-in-a-while and completely varied traumas of walking around with naked feet. Since the bones and tissue are, in a sense, being grown inside the shoes, they struggle to conform to some of the spaces and mechanical environments that we give them.

The second effect of shoes on foot development is that they influence the performance and architecture of the arch of the foot. As Dudley Morton (1964: 145) argued decades ago:

The natural foot is the naked, unclothed foot; and its arched conformation is not an element of weakness in design calling for artificial help, but of structural strength acquired through countless generations of unaided weightbearing. Occasionally we hear shoes referred to as a “natural support for the arch.” The suggestion should move our hearts in pity toward all primitive peoples were it not for the fact that they have no foot troubles, as well as no shoes. The phrase is one of many in which glibness overshadows accuracy, and unfortunately tends to promote erroneous ideas about the foot and its welfare.

The arch of the foot absorbs force when the feet impact the ground, stretching tendons in multiple directions, flattening and deflecting momentum. ‘Supporting’ the arch of the foot by placing it on a convex orthotic would make it virtually impossible for it to function as a shock absorber.

The arch support, which is present in all running footwear, would interfere with the downward deflection of the medial arch on loading. Furthermore, the use of orthodics, or other structures that are fitted to the mold of the soft tissues of the foot, could cause similar difficulty. Such designs occur when an engineer looks at the foot as an inflexible lever which is delicate and thus requires packaging. Various myths persist about foot behavior due to poor understanding of its biology. (Robbins and Hanna 1987)

Shoes also bind together the toes, making it very difficult for them to move, let alone engage in the grasping motions that habitually unshod people make when they walk (see Robbins and Gouw 1990; more on this below). To return to Morton (1964: 218), the bare toes move relative to each other to bear the weight of the body, and shoes affect their angle of spread: ‘The toes of non-shoe-wearing natives are separated when weight is borne on the feet; but any light, closely fitted foot covering will prevent their separation, owing to the lateral mobility of the toes and the small size of the muscles that abduct them.’ Sim-Fook and Hodgson (1958: 1060) also found ‘a tendency to spread’ in the forefoot, especially between the first and second toes (see also Funakoshi 2005).

Normally, the big toe (or hallux) diverges from the second toe at an angle of 5 to 10 degrees. But, in a condition referred to as hallux valgus, the big toe angles toward the small toes. When the condition is also accompanied by hypermobility, it is often congenital and referred to as ‘atavistic’ (although I suspect that this designation is not evolutionarily accurate). But the condition is often caused by wearing ill-fitting shoes, and it occurs 10 times more often in women as in men according to Richardson, Hansen, and Kilcoyne (2000; see also this source for astonishing X-rays of the effects of shoes on bone configuration… I was gobsmacked by a couple of the images). Morton believes that shoes have no noticeable effect on the functioning of toes, but we do know that habitually binding together the toes does affect the skeletal structure of the feet, and the evidence of pathology from shoes seems to me to be pretty compelling.

Patterns of bone growth and remodeling due to use (commonly referred to loosely as ‘Wolff’s law,’ see Ruff et al. 2006) suggest that a shift in toe use and the increased support for the bones of the feet provided by habitually worn shoes, will lead to differences in bone structure between habitually shod and unshod populations (see, for example, Sim-Fook and Hodgson 1958). Bound together laterally and ‘supported’ by an arched shoes, the foot cannot act as efficiently as a shock absorber; at the same time, less dynamic loading on the bones means that the bones will be less robust. Shoes, then, have a range of developmental effects, from low-level, constant pressure and abrasion to a form of protection which leads to greater fragility.

As a result, Zipfel and Berger (2007) recorded substantially higher rates of bone pathology in the feet of shod populations that they studied (European, Sotho and Zulu) than in pre-pastoralist South African populations who likely were habitually barefoot foragers. Although Erik Trinkaus’ work (see below) suggests that pathologies caused by shoes might be uneven distributed among the bones of the feet, Zipfel and Berger (ibid.: 209) found ‘the foot on the pre-pastoralist group is uniformly “healthier” than the modern groups.’

Ironically, even though Zipfel and Berger acknowledge that pre-pastoralist people show some signs of ‘wear and tear’ that might arise from much greater amounts of walking, constant travel and nomadic foraging, this heavy use pattern did not correlate with higher rates of a wide range of bone pathologies.

The results presented here suggest that the unshod lifestyle of the pre-pastoral group was associated with a lower frequency of osteological modification. The influence of modern lifestyle including the use of footwear, appears to have some significant negative effect on foot function, potentially resulting in an increase in pathological changes. (ibid.: 212)

I found it especially curious that the relative rates of pathology types and locations tended to be pretty similar across the different groups, but the overall frequency of pathological conditions varied, with shod populations’ rates of most disorders higher. This suggests that the wear pattern on feet is pretty similar, whether a population wears shoes or not; they get the same sorts of disorders, but less frequently without shoes.

The only way I can explain this is to assume that the shoes themselves don’t cause pathologies (otherwise, we’d notice some abnormally frequent disorders), but that shoes uniformly make the foot susceptible to disordered development. In other words, it’s not the shoes doing the damage, it’s that they throw off the foot’s ability to cope with normal movement, making the organ more fragile and susceptible to all pathologies (but note that this was only a study of bones, not soft tissue lesions).

The problem is not simply that we wear shoes, but that we often don’t wear the right shoes. Abboud (2002:176) reports that,

Since its inception in 1993, most patients seen at the Foot Pressure Analysis Clinic (FPAC) in Dundee, regardless of how minor or complex their problem was, were using ill-fitting footwear with discrepancies in shoe width and size when compared to their feet. In some cases, there was a difference of up to 3 UK sizes and 4 cm in width across the metatarsal head area, needless to say causing abnormal biomechanical force through the foot joints. The cumulative damage caused by footwear over the years goes inmost cases unnoticed and gets ignored despite clear signs of pain and dorsal callus formation, the latter can only develop as a result of friction with the inner shoe.

I probably don’t need to remind you that, as an anthropologist, I make little distinction between what people ‘should’ be wearing and what they actually are wearing. From the point of view of the feet, ill-fitting shoes are just as much a part of the developmental niche as perfectly chosen footwear.

Sternbergh explains the developmental influence of shoes simply: ‘This is the shoe paradox: We’ve come to believe that shoes, not bare feet, are natural and comfortable, when in fact wearing shoes simply creates the need for wearing shoes.’ Shoe designers are convinced that feet need to be protected against the ground, and the result is that our feet are so sheltered that they do become fragile.

The earliest shoes

Otzi's shoe
Otzi's shoe
Otzi the Iceman, discovered in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991, was wearing shoes, but he was only 5000 years old. Even older remains suggest shoes had been around for a while: mummies in the Americas as old as 9000 years have shoes, footprints left by moccasins have been found in the Upper Paleolithic, cave paintings suggest footwear, and burials sometimes have beads on the feet and ankles that might have been sewn to leather shoes of some sort.

Archaeologist Erik Trinkaus has written a number of articles on the evidence for footwear in prehistoric populations, arguing that, in order to survive the cold of glacial periods, hominins would have necessarily figured out how to create insulating protection of some sort: a kind of prehistoric Ugg boot. But more modern-style, mechanically supportive shoes would have been a later development, evident in the bones of the feet because a semi-rigid sole will alter the distribution of force on the foot (see Trinkaus 2005: 1516). When walking barefoot, the toes flex, making the bones on the outside of the foot stronger through remodelling (as mentioned in the previous section); Trinkaus hypothesized that a shift in the robusticity of bones in the hallux (big toe) relative to the smaller toes (or the outside of the foot) would be a possible sign of habitual hard-soled shoe wearing.

Trinkaus compared bones from three different recent North American populations to test the hypothesis that shoes caused shifts in the relative strength of the toe bones (Pecos Pueblo Native American, Inuit, and Euro-Americans). Within these samples, predictions about the robustness of the phalanges in the feet based upon their shoe-wearing patterns turned out to be accurate; Pecos Pueblo Native Americans wearing soft-soled moccasins had the most robust lateral toes, Inuit in harder soled boots had more gracile bones, and Euro-Americans in hard-soled shoes had the most marked disparity. The more support offered by the footwear, the less robust the bones of the feet associated with the smaller toes (especially the pedal proximal phalanges in the middle of the foot).

Trinkaus has used beam model analysis, a technique that scans cross sections of bones across their axis to get some idea of their density and configuration. These donut-like images gives some sense of the stresses placed upon the bones because they remodel to compensate for these stresses, get stronger, in general, to withstand habitual strains.

A similar comparison might provide insight into the earliest rigid footwear because, as Trinkaus puts it, ‘relative robusticity of human lateral toes might provide insight into the frequency of use of footwear’ (2005: 1515). Because the organic materials likely used to make the first shoes would not endure in the archaeological record, Trinkaus’ method is as intriguing as it is ingenuous. In the archaeological remains Trinkaus examined, the evidence from the feet suggest that shoes became more and more prevalent from the Middle Paleolithic to the middle Upper Paleolithic; he suggests supportive footwear is likely around 30,000 years old in his earlier work (2005), but some of his later work with Shang (2008) may push that date back closer to 40,000 years.

I’m not going to go into all of Trinkaus’ analysis here. Blogger Afarensis has a number of posts on the issue of prehistoric footwear including here, here and here. Please read Afarensis, especially What You Can Learn From Bones: When Did We Start Wearing Shoes? for a more complete discussion of Trinkaus’ work.

By comparing the shoes to an ‘environment,’ I don’t mean to suggest that 40,000 years of being shod is a form of ‘unnatural selection’ that has shifted the genetic contributors to the anatomy of our feet. Rather, I just mean to suggest that, if shoes are affecting the anatomy of our feet, we have been transmitting certain kinds of crucial traits through the artificial environment that we’ve created. We place our children in little training shoes so that their feet are sculpted into a configuration that fits within, and virtually demands the support of shoes. So should we lose our shoes and go back to ‘natural’ feet, unwinding perhaps 40,000 years of non-genetic biophysical heredity?

Paleo-nostalgia and lifestyle advice

from barefooted.com
from barefooted.com
I often get students who come up to me after a lecture and want to know where I stand on some lifestyle movement that purports to be ‘getting back to’ some earlier human way of life. When I lecture on human dietary change, they come up to me to ask about the Paleolithic Diet or whether vegetarianism is more ‘natural’; when I talk about pregnancy, brain evolution, and altricial infants, they ask my opinion of different approaches to child rearing, or issues like breast feeding or co-sleeping.

I suspect that I usually disappoint my students, who can be pretty fervent about these ideas. Most paleo-nostalgia movements seem to me to be very selective – for example, the whole Paleolithic Diet movement seems to overlook a host of problems, such as changes in activity patterns, the difference between wild and domesticated meat animals, the high incidence of parasites and low life expectancy in prehistoric periods, and the likelihood that much of human protein was not coming from delicious medium-rare steak or grilled chicken breasts but rather invertebrates, shell fish, small vertebrates, offal and carrion (that’s right, maybe it should be the ‘Bugs, Clams, Lizards and Roadkill Diet’ – not quite the same marketing potential as ‘Eat All the Steak and Chicken You Can!’). I’ve discussed this in Paleofantasies of the perfect diet – Marlene Zuk in NYTimes.

So what about shoes and foot health? Is there anyone out there preaching the Paleolithic Podiatry program? Zinjanthropus shares my scepticism of podiatric paleo-nostalgia, asking why one period of our evolutionary history is privileged over others. Zinjanthropus writes:

Either way, I’m usually very cautious about shaping my lifestyle to fit the needs of a paleolithic savannah-scape. We’ve done a lot of evolving since then, after all! If I push my lifestyle back to the Paleolithic, then who’s to say that I’m not even BETTER evolved for the Pliocene?

If a hunter and gatherer diet, for example, is allegedly ‘healthier,’ why not push back to a diet of astringent fruit like our arboreal ancestors (as Richard Wranger points out, you’d be able to look forward to hours every day of chewing to get enough calories, for example).

Paleonostalgia suffers from a number of deep problems. As Zinjanthropus suggests, how to choose which period in time to use as a model. Hominins have evolved over millions of years through a whole range of environments; paleonostalgia tends to arbitrarily pick a point of time in the past, which is not necessarily more valid as a lifestyle model than any other. In addition, paleonostalgists tend to ignore the likelihood that human niches were varied – not as varied as later humans – but the ability to occupy diverse environmental niches has been a hallmark of our ancestors. Too much dietary and environmental specialization hasn’t really been a hallmark of our genus; arguably, the members of our genus and closely allied ones who have become too specialized and inflexible, have all gone extinct (I don’t want to argue this too strenuously, as many of the ones we tend to consider highly specialized a) lasted a hell of a long time, longer than Homo sapiens in some cases, and b) we’re increasingly uncertain that we can know for certain adaptive behaviours from anatomy, as the case of Paranthropus teeth suggests.).

Similarly, discussions of evidence from foraging peoples is often just as selective and slanted. Although we hear about the running capabilities of foraging people (and I, too, firmly believe that they were much more active than technologically-dependent sedentary people), we don’t hear about their injuries, including disabling ones, or their chronic health problems, including things like parasites that enter the body through the feet.

Alfred Gell, for example (I’m pretty sure, but I can’t remember in which text), wrote about travelling quickly through the rainforest with barefoot colleagues; although they were swift and sure-footed, they also had to stop every once in a while when one of them had to dig a thorn out of his or her foot.

One problem with paleonostalgia for barefoot running is the fact that we do not run in a paleolithic environment. As Trimble writes in Popular Mechanics:

The problem modern-day runners face, according to Hugh Herr, Popular Mechanics 2005 Breakthrough Award winner and head of the biomechatronic group at MIT, isn’t presented by our bodies but by the evolution of running surfaces. Humans that ran to scavenge or hunt for their food weren’t pounding concrete.

Running shoes offer a trade-off:

In his research, Herr focused on two problems with both shod and barefoot running-pronation angle and impact force. While barefoot running is best for a natural, stress-free pronation angle, Herr says, it is not ideal for coping with roads and sidewalks that can lead to stress-impact injuries. Shoes, on the other hand, excel at diminishing the force of impact on hard ground. But they do so at the cost of the natural stride-all the padding added to the shoe exaggerates the foot’s rotation.

So just throw away your shoes, right, and let your feet be free? Well, even the proponents of barefoot running caution that the transition from being habitually shod to running around au naturale can take some time because ‘the change in biomechanics and loading of joints, muscles and tendons threatens injury if you’re not careful’ (Tucker and Dugas, Running Shoes).

If running barefoot is so ‘natural’ to humans, why do we have to take it slowly? Because our feet become well adapted, as best they can, to wearing shoes. For all of the discussion of evolution having shaped human bodies and our feet for running, the body that habitually walks and runs in shoes has very much adapted to that niche. (See, for example, Tucker on attempts to change running techniques.)

But an interesting example of just how adaptable the feet can be comes from Shulman’s (1949) study of Chinese and Indian populations, in particular some individuals who might be expected to have the most damaged feet (if shoes were necessary to save our feet):

One hundred and eighteen of those interviewed were rickshaw coolies. Because these men spend very long hours each day on cobblestone or other hard roads pulling their passengers at a run it was of particular interest to survey them. If anything, their feet were more perfect than the others. All of them, however, gave a history of much pain and swelling of the foot and ankle during the first few days of work as a rickshaw puller. But after either a rest of two days or a week’s more work on their feet, the pain and swelling passed away and never returned again. There is no occupation more strenuous for the feet than trotting a rickshaw on hard pavement for many hours each day yet these men do it without pain or pathology.

Weren’t our feet designed for running barefoot?

In fact, a number of recent articles suggest that some of the traits of the foot (and other parts of the body) indicate that an ability to run barefoot might have offered a selective advantage during human evolution (e.g., Bramble & Lieberman 2004; see also Wired Science, These toes were made for running). But I don’t think that the issue is simply a debate between the running shoe industry and the growing ‘natural’ barefoot running movement. Instead, the anatomy of the foot, its sensitivity in development to the presence of shoes, and the evolutionary development of shoes and bipedalism, all illustrate how hard it is to talk about the natural human body at all or what the human body is ‘designed’ to do.

Patterns of activity, the most minimal technology, and the way we restructure our living environments all shape our physiological development. In fact, the role of activity, motor experience, and sense perception is so crucial in the development of so much of the human body and nervous system that I suspect we cannot even imagine how a person ‘without’ these sorts of influences might develop. Because humans are inherently adaptable — through culture, learning, technology, and even physiological change – it makes sense that plasticity itself would be a trait likely selected for in humans (an idea I take from Mary Jane West-Eberhard [e.g., 2005]).

Faced with the evidence that something as simple as wearing shoes can affect our soft tissue physiology, skeletal structure, gait kinetics, and the like, we can ask whether being shod or unshod is our ‘natural’ state. In a number of the internet postings about barefoot running, I find assertions about what sorts of surfaces or types of locomotion the human foot was ‘designed’ to accomplish. I think it’s too easy to just say, ‘barefoot is natural; shoes are artificial; feet were designed to run.’

In fact, the human foot and lege were not ‘designed’ for running or walking, barefoot or otherwise. They were not ‘designed’ at all. Evolution doesn’t design anything. Legs and feet are built by natural selection out of an appendage that, a very very long time ago, was a fin. If you were going to ‘design’ a limb and foot for running, you could do a lot better than the human architecture. Our knees, for example, are really lousy; they’re basically a rejiggered hinge joint and could certainly have been engineered better by a benevolent Creator. And She could have given us a more elastic set-up of tendons, too, something like kangaroos have. Oh, man, if some genetic engineer could just work on that kanga-human hybrid (a ‘kanga-hu’?), Olympic steeplechase would be so cool; no more of that stepping on top of the jump and landing in the water – but I digress.

Most of our readers will, of course, be completely familiar with the problems of the ‘Natural Selection as Designer’ metaphor, but it’s one that still crops up again and again in discussions of the evolution of traits. Normally, we can get by with the ‘design’ metaphor without too much trouble, but in the case of something like the role of activity in shaping the emergence of a physiological trait.

You see, human feet aren’t just good for running. They’re good for walking, standing, swimming, lifting, kicking, and a host of other functions. Like most primates, our limb use is actually pretty versatile; the arboreal niche of our ancestor presented a wide variety of challenges – hanging, swinging, walking on top of branches, standing bipedally, standing on all four. In addition, our primate ancestors, like us, don’t just use their limbs for locomotion; they use their limbs to manipulate objects, process food, hold offspring, interact socially, protect themselves, and a host of other activities.

Wait, you say, but we don’t use our feet this way. We’re humans. Feet are for walking and running…

Well, here’s the thing. Feet aren’t just ‘designed for’ walking or running; they turn out to be useful for all sorts of things. In the Chinese populations that Sim-Fook and Hodgson (1958: 1061) studied, habitually unshod people used their big toes often ‘to hold fishing nets and fishing lines taut so that the hands were free.’ The result was that these individuals developed ‘a remarkable degree of prehensile strength’ in the big toe (ibid.: 1060-1061). They conclude their discussion of the ‘unshod foot’ with the summary: ‘The unshod foot had laxity of the joints and tissues producing, in its natural form, a flexible foot with a degree of metatarsus latus, metatarsus primus varus, and hypermobility.’

You or I or the next guy may not be using our feet for things like peeling fruit or dialing the phone, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. In fact, many individuals congenitally born without arms or unable to control their arms due to a condition like cerebral palsy develop extraordinary dexterity with their feet, not only using them to do everyday tasks, but even activities like painting or playing an instrument. Painter Chan Tung-mui, for example, paints watercolours with her feet because she cannot control her hands due to cerebral palsy.

Simona Atzori
Simona Atzori
Other prominent people who do a lot with their feet include painter and dancer Simona Atzori, Barbara Guerra (seen here on Medical Incredible), Mark Goffeney (guitarist for the rock band, Big Toe ), Tony Meléndez (barefoot guitarist, seen in this video playing ‘Let It Be’), and the late Bonnie Consolo, featured in the Academy Award nominated film A Day in the Life of Bonnie Consolo (released 1975) (here you can find a video of Bonnie Consolo typing with her feet (see also the site of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World). Pravda carried the story of a Ukranian man, Sergei Vasyura, born without arms, who learned to shave, ride a bicycle, swim, build cars, bait a fishhook, weld, and even repair alarm clocks with his feet.

In most humans, especially shoe-wearing humans, the hallux is adducted, that is, in line with the other toes; but some degree of abduction is present in many of us, especially if habitually unshod, and may even develop to a slightly greater degree with use. Of course, no one approaches the abduction angles of our primate cousins who dwell in trees and have fully-functioning prehensile feet, but this crucial detail of human anatomy, one that distinguishes us from others, may be more variable than we think.

Shulman (1949) makes an off-handed remark about this that I found incredibly interesting: ‘Almost everyone surveyed showed a marked spacing between the first and second toes such as that found on young babies.’ I don’t know about the developmental dynamics, but it wouldn’t surprise me too much if, absent the adducting influence of shoes for more than half of our lives, and an even greater proportion of the time in which our feet were weight bearing, the angle of the toes found in infants was closer to the habitually unshod.

Although we may think that the Chinese practice of foot-binding is a kind of aberration, Zipfel and Berger (2007: 205-206) suggest on the basis of previous research that many Asian populations reveal the degree to which conventional shoes bind feet: ‘Studies of Asian populations whose feet were habitually either unshod, in thong-type sandals or encased in non-constrictive coverings have shown increased forefoot widths when compared to those of shod populations.’

As I wrote in the paper I presented at Univesité Montpellier (Downey 2009), just as Clifford Geertz (1973:67-68) argued that an uncultured human being would be a ‘mindless and consequently unworkable monstrosity,’ a skill-less human would not be capable of the most basic, defining ‘human’ physical acts. The fact that skills like foot painting or feeding oneself with one’s feet are rare does not mean that our feet were not ‘designed’ to do them.

If we were looking for a ‘natural’ foot, one without any influence of activity, we should probably focus on infants or on those who are disabled. We should realize that our feet were not ‘designed’ to do one thing or another; caring for them, and shaping them in ways that we desire, requires more than just figuring out what our ‘nature’ might be.

UPDATE: In January 2010, this issue was in the news due to the release of a new study suggesting that knee, ankle and hip damage might be greater for shod than unshod runners. Some sources have made the leap to the likelihood of osteo-arthritis, although the original study was biomechanical in nature. For a popular version:
Running Shoes May Cause Damage to Knees, Hips and Ankles, New Study Suggests
The original article (and abstract) is available here for download as a PDF:
Kerrigan, D. Casey, MD, Jason R. Franz, MS, Geoffrey S. Keenan, MD, Jay Dicharry, MPT, Ugo Della Croce, PhD, Robert P. Wilder, MD. 2010. The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques. PM&R 1 (12): 1058-1063. DOI: 10.1016/j.pmrj.2009.09.011

Stumble It!

More reading
Bare Feet by Zinjanthropus at A Primate of a Modern Aspect

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas at The Science of Sport published a whole series on running shoes and running dynamics in 2008:
Part 1: Do shoes cause injury?
Part 2: Shoes, injuries and training
Part 3: Running barefoot – the intelligent biomachine
Part 4: The footstrike – how should your foot land?
Part 5: The market and evolution of the shoe industry

Dylan Tweeny. 2008. Your Shoes Are Killing Your Feet. Wired Science (23 April). http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/04/your-shoes-are/

Amby Burfoot. 2004. Should You Be Running Barefoot? Runner’s World. Available at: http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-240-319–6728-0,00.html

Adam Sternberg. 2008. You Walk Wrong. New York Magazine (28 April). Available at: http://nymag.com/health/features/46213/

Tyghe Trimble. 2009. The Running Shoe Debate: How Barefoot Runners are Shaping the Shoe Industry. Popular Mechanics (22 April). Available at: http://www.popularmechanics.com/outdoors/sports/4314401.html

Joseph Froncioni. 2006. Athletic footwear and running injuries. Quickswood weblog (22 August 2006, but Froncioni admits to writing it much earlier).

Runner’s World’s ‘barefoot running’ forum.

Barefoot Ken Bob’s website http://runningbarefoot.org/
Barefoot Ted’s website http://barefootted.com/
Barefoot Rick Roeber’s website http://barefootrunner.org/ (Is it just me, or is there a pattern here?)
…El gringo sin los zapatos … Barefoot running blog
Barefoot vs. the Shoe blog, which hasn’t been updated in a while, but the truly obsessive might find interesting
And if anyone else wants to read it in Portuguese, there’s Correndo Descalço.

Photo of runners in the 1984 Olympics from the site, Barefoot Concepts.

Painted foot. Photo by Tom Schierlitz; makeup by John Maurad and Jenai Chin.
From You Walk Wrong, by Adam Sternbergh, the New York Magazine.


Abboud, R. J. 2002. Mini-Symposium: The Elective Foot: (i) Relevant foot biomechanics. Current Orthopaedics 16(3): 165-179. doi:10.1006/cuor.2002.0268 (abstract)

Bramble, Dennis M., and Daniel E. Lieberman. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432 (18): 345-352.

Burge, Caroline. 2001. Comment on Barefoot Running. Sportscience 5(3), sportsci.org/jour/0103/cb.htm

Clinghan, R., G. P. Arnold, T. S. Drew, and L. A. Cochrane. 2008. Do you get value for money when you buy an expensive pair of running shoes? British Journal of Sports Medicine 42(3): 189-193. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2007.038844

De Wit, Brigit, Dirk De Clercq, Peter Aerts. 2000. Biomechanical analysis of the stance phase during barefoot and shod running. Journal of Biomechanics 33: 269-278

Divert, C., G. Mornieux, H. Baur, F. Mayer, and A. Belli. 2005. Mechanical Comparison of Barefoot and Shod Running. International Journal of Sports Medicine 26(7): 593-598.

Divert C., G. Mornieux, P. Freychat, L. Baly, F. Mayer, and A. Belli. 2008. Barefoot-shod running differences: shoe or mass effect? International Journal of Sports Medicine 29(6): 512-518.

Downey, Greg. 2007. Producing Pain: Techniques and Technologies in No-Holds-Barred Fighting. Social Studies of Science 37(2):201-226.

_____. 2009. ‘Interculturality, body & movement: On studying someone else’s skill.’ Keynote lecture. Conference: Le Corps em Mouvement 2, Francophone Association for Research on Physical and Sportive Activities, Université Montpellier 2 and Santésih Laboratory (Health, Education and Disability Situations), 4 June.

Driscoll, Dennis G. 2004 (2003). Barefoot Running: A Natural Step for the Endurance Athlete. Track Coach 168: 5373-5377. Available in several forms online, such as in manuscript form here.

Funakoshi, Kimitake. 2005. Secular changes in the angle of divergence of the first two metatarsals in the Japanese. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 75(3): 341-345.

Morton, Dudley J. 1964. The Human Foot: Its Evolution, Physiology, and Functional Disorders. New York and London: Hafner Publishing.

Richards, Craig E., Parker J. Magin, and Robin Callister. 2009. Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence based? British Journal of Sports Medicine 43(3): 159-162. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2008.046680

Richardson, Michael L., Sigvard T. Hansen, and Ray F. Kilcoyne. 2000. Radiographic Evaluation of Hallux Valgus. From the University of Washington School of Medicine, Department of Radiology website. Accessible at http://www.rad.washington.edu/anatomy/halluxvalgus.html (accessed on: 27 June 2006).

Robbins, Steven E., and Gerard J. Gouw. 1990. Athletic footwear and chronic overloading. Sports Medicine 9(2): 76-85.
_____. 1991. Athletic footwear: unsafe due to perceptual illusions. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 23(2): 217-224

Robbins, Steven E., and Adel M. Hanna. 1987. Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 19(2): 148-156.

Robbins S, and E. Waked. 1997. Hazard of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear. British Journal of Sports Medicine 31: 299-303. doi:10.1136/bjsm.31.4.299. (Abstract and full text.)

Ruff, Christopher, Brigitte Holt, and Erik Trinkaus. 2006. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolff?: ‘‘Wolff’s Law’’ and Bone Functional Adaptation. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 129: 484-494. doi 10.1002/ajpa.20371

Shulman, Samuel B. 1949. Survey in China and India of Feet That Have Never Worn Shoes. The Journal of the National Association of Chiropodists 49: 26-30.

Sim-Fook, Lam, and A. R. Hodgson. 1958. A Comparison of Foot Forms among the Non-Shoe and Shoe-Wearing Chinese Population. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery 40: 1058-1062.

Trinkaus, Erik. 2005. Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear use. Journal of Archaeological Science 32: 1515–1526. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2005.04.006

Trinkaus, Erik, and Hong Shang. 2008. Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear: Tianyuan and Sunghir. Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (7): 1928-1933. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2007.12.002

West-Eberhard, Mary Jane. 2005. Developmental plasticity and the origin of species differences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 102 (suppl. 1): 6543-6549. http://www.pnas.org cgi doi 10.1073 pnas.0501844102

Wharburton, Michael. 2001. Barefoot running. Sportscience 5(3). sportsci.org/jour/0103/mw.htm. (pdf available)

Zipfel, B., and L. R. Berger. 2007. Shod versus unshod: The emergence of forefoot pathology in modern humans? The Foot 17: 205–213. doi:10.1016/j.foot.2007.06.002

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

65 thoughts on “Lose your shoes: Is barefoot better?

  1. Fascinating article, thanks for writing it.

    When people talk about being shod or unshod it appears the assumption is that these are mutually exclusive practices. That is not necessarily the case. For example, native americans would spend much of their time unshod and yet don moccasins for specific tasks (like hunting).

    Similarly, the American colonists were famously unshod for much of the year — nearly everyone went barefoot in Virginia, for example — but would don shoes for specific purposes or times of the year.

    So did Otzi wear shoes all of the time or only when he planned on traversing the cold, rocky, glacial area where his body was found?

    In other words, beyond simply asking whether a given people were shod or unshod, I think we should also ask what percentage of the time they were shod or unshod.

    Again, great article and I look forward to your book.

    1. another good source that talks about cultures that are barefoot and not is the born to run book by mcdougal

      I think it talks about cultures that are barefoot 100% of the time. In modern society though this is more difficult, but there are alternatives like minamalist types of shoes. Google some of them or check this site out is has a decent amount of information about them.

    2. I can understand that you want to keep an unbiased point of view, and some things are very good and well stated. However, in my opinion there are some problems with the general logical thought about the paleo point of view. You said that from an antropologist perspective no matter if we are meant to wear shoes or not, but under a biological aspect surely matters when health is involved. We are the result of an evolutionary path, but more likely according to the punctuated theory, that could mean that the species sapiens came out from a evolutionary branch instead of a linear one thought by old darwinism. Thus to me it means that we came out with almost all the definitive features and some possible adjustment like skin pigmentation and others. The amount of evidence says that our feet, our digestive system and our enzymes have almost remained the same. Thus, for me it’s a nonsense to claim that the paleo research is bogus because we could go back to an arbitrarily moment of evolution, when logic suggests to take what is more likely to be proper for our species. I agree that we have a good flexibility, but it doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want without issues. There’s a huge amount of evidence that grains are not good for us, that the modern lifestyle doesn’t fit with our biology, that shoes are harmful. If we were such adaptable, we would be healthy, but when we look at the hunter gatherers we see that they are overall healthy, strong and able to survive in their natural environment with harmony like any other animals who follows his biology. When we eat not proper food for our species, we get sick, when we wear shoes we switch on patterns that lead to injuries and pain, as highlighted in the studies you mentioned, while unshod population have little problems. Thus here we should draw a line between what is good for a species and what not, and the line is driven by a factor called health. There’s an apparent mismatch between culture and nature, and sapiens is a being whose brain is able to act against nature, but history thaught that any time we twisted nature’s rules we have been punished. Thus we shouldn’t go back arbitrarily but we should try to understand what is more proper for our species Homo Sapiens. I agree that it’s not so easy, probably it’s easier to say what is not good rather than what is good. Shoes seem not to be good. I’m a barefooter and I’ve been strolling around the world in my bare feet for years and I had no problems, only an astonishing improvement of my health, as for my evo diet. I agree that we were eating nose to tail wildgame, but you could agree that a steak, a salad and some starchy plants are far nearer to our species specific food than pasta, pizza or a muffin. And the huge amount of evidence say that, and say that shoes are not good for our feet nor for the entire postural chain, no matter if Trinkaus says that they are around for 30 thousands years. And it’s not true that humans have been constantly wearing supportive footwear since then when history shows that until renaissance shoes were just a status symbols for few and the masses went around barefoot (see also the history of footwear by Robbins). Furthermore, I agree with the statement that we are not designed to run, also because very few populations do persistance hunting but they are “polluted” samples because they are not true hunter gatherers in their natural environments but they can be considered boarder line tribes, while the most part of them do not run at all, just walk and throw poisoned arrows. persistance hunting also uses the anaerobic lactacid metabolism, that is very painful and uses glucose to produce energy that seems not to be the best choice for any animal that move with maximal sprints. Thus I agree with you that most probably we are a rather plastic animal capable to do many things and walk on different surfaces, but there’s a limit to adaptability and shoes certainly are a stranger device that changes the moving patterns of our body, and it’s been observed that such changes lead to injuries and pain. The last thing that makes me laugh is the statement that we are not meant for asphalt, but natural soil of savannah where we evolve is all but a soft english lawn. the asphalt of course lack of an array of protusion, but I don’t see how shoes can reproduce the ideal soil and moving patterns, nor they seem to be able to deal with such alleged mismatch. Again bare feet seem to have demonstrated to be reasonably safe anyway compared to shoes. In light of that, should we loose such years of culture? I’m for the freedom of choice but if we claim to be concerned about our health, the answer would probably be yes, otherwise everyone can keep their issues without blaming a “poor” genetics.

  2. An enjoyable read but only surprising to readers whom have never lived in a locale where it is routine to wait at the bus stop with individuals whom have never worn shoes. Their feet just look different.

    As Bob points out and as you make implicit nods to a number of times, there are all sorts of variables to consider here, not just, “Is it better for the species that individuals wear shoes or not?” Covering the soles of one’s feet can help prevent parasites, for one thing. And I would not want to stub my toe in a world without antibiotics.

    Maybe the most interesting thing to me, though, is that Tweeny’s research seems as profit driven as cagefighting. Barefoot or shod, the real variable is, “Are you a competitive runner?” Humans have been running and engaging in combat presumably as long as there have been humans, but running 80–100 miles a week at six minutes a mile or better is to the our distant ancestors movement on foot what the UFC is to the Finns on their skis in the Winter War. Both are amazing feats of skill and resilience, but one seems frankly gratuitous.

  3. The fact that bare feet are versatile (especially bare feet), does not negate the fact that they are suitable for running.

    The human knee, actually does work very well for running, not even as different from a kangaroos (except not in unison) as we might believe, when watching modern “joggers”. The many problems with “runner’s knee” seems to occur almost exclusively among shod runners. In fact, many of our Running Barefoot “converts”, found they could not run significant distances without knee pains, while shod. One must wonder, how many other runners are there, who haven’t considered trying running barefoot, many because they assume it must be worse than with shoes?

    Just during the mere 12-year history of the RunningBarefoot.org website, I have been contacted by hundreds of folks who could not run any significant distance WITH shoes, without sufferring severe, and often debilitating knee (and sometimes back) pains. Among those who contacted me, after taking a bit of time to relearn HOW to run, nearly all have managed to run significant (a few miles or more) distances barefoot with no knee or back pains.

    In fact, many, have managed to complete full marathons (26.2 miles) barefoot.

    Barefoot Larry, a registered nurse, had sufferred bilateral knee pains and debilitating back pains anytime he ran shod, managed, after attempting to prove my theory wrong, to complete dozens of marathons barefoot, with no knee or back pains.

    And of course, Barefoot Ted, who has run with the Tarahumara, couldn’t run any significant distance with shoes, without sufferring knee pains (he even tried Kanga-Boots, which gave him some of the advantages of the Kangaroo, but with the added bonus of ankle pains).

    The problem, of course, is that shoes do not significantly block impact. They only block the sensation of impact, giving us a false sense of security, so that we don’t actually allow our knees to bend. The human knee only makes a lousy shock absorber when landing with our leg outstretched straight in front of us, so we can land heel-first (as shoes are designed).

    But, it is amazing what the human knee can do, when we introduce a little feedback from the soles of our feet, feedback which teaches us, for example, to bend our knees, and let them be the springs they should be (not so different from the Kangaroo), cushioning our landings, and returning most of that energy to forward movement – if we direct it forward, instead of up-and-down, as in “jogging”.

    Have fun,
    -barefoot ken bob

  4. Shoes are tools. But it seems clear that for some activities, we’re overusing the tool, or using it in an inappropriate way. (To the man with a hammer, every problem is a nail, after all.)

    Feet, as you point out, clearly evolved as multi-purpose instruments, but one of the primary uses is running and walking. For any single activity, you can certainly analyze a better and worse method of using that instrument. Pointing out the other uses of the foot is beside the point to analyzing if barefoot running is superior or inferior to shod running, which is what most of the barefoot sites are discussing.

    From what I’ve read (which is comprehensively summarized in your article, nice job), it seems that for running a lot of the tools that we’re using are inappropriate, or just harmful.

    So ‘barefoot’ running is better than running w/ over-cushioned, narrow shoes, assuming you want maximum performance and minimal injury.

    But you’re not going to go barefoot over coral, or where parasites are common, or on ice, or even, as the barefoot runners have learned, if you want maximum speed over difficult terrain. In those cases you clearly need to use your tools to supplement the equipment Nature endowed us with.

    By the way: “…indicate that an ability to run barefoot might have offered a selective advantage during human evolution.” They argue that an ability to run would have offered an advantage. I think Lieberman & co. take for granted that Homo Erectus and progeny were not wearing Nikes, at least for the first many hundreds of thousands of years. 😉

  5. Well, with ten years running experience and a fair bit of socializing with “those types”, including living through the sub-three hour marathon training of a significant other, I wouldn’t begin to trust the perceptions of most runners. After all, the only object they have to fetishize is their shoes. At least baseball players can transpose some of their magical thinking onto their bats but what have runners got: shoes and diet. Reindeer milk and pickle juice anyone?

    Thanks for the corrective and a good teachable moment.

  6. Pingback: Are barefoot runners and parasites BFF? – The Blogs at HowStuffWorks
  7. the research is pretty clear that there are benefits and some draw backs, yes, some of the drawbacks can be eliminated by special shoes:


    But many even say that these types of shoes aren’t minimalist ENOUGH,even though I love the kso’s:


    I agree, it’s not completely like running barefoot.

    let me know what you guys things or if you suggest even more minimalist type of shoes.

    1. hey harvey, I checked out the site.. saw some good info about the comparison between nike free’s and KSO, do you have any feedback on that. I’m trying to see which one i should pick up.. shoot me an email. But thanks for the info, a lot of good information on the blog on that site especially.

      1. Some of the nike free shoes are in my opinion sooo similar to standard cushy running shoes, the higher the number behind the .0, the more like running shoes they seem. I recommend trying the KSO five toe shoes because the feeling of almost completely bare is a sensation in itself, yeah nike frees are flexible to a degree but you can get a lot closer to a barefoot experience with KSOs.

        PS: the brand of vivo barefoot has some very stylish options that keep with the barefoot technology theme.

  8. Great article!

    There are a couple of other things to consider –
    First, you mention that human beings have worn shoes for many thousands of years. Most experts will say between 20- and 30,000 years. Wearing shoes is not new. The problem, as you point out, “is not simply that we wear shoes, but that we often don’t wear the right shoes.”

    The trend that you notice in footwear is going the right way – more flexible and less obtrusive. Similar to the huarache-type sandal that was the prevalent footwear pattern for most of those 30,000 years. Sandals, moccasins, etc.

    The article by Sternbergh is interesting, but neglects the whole history of Western footwear (similar to some Eastern cultures) – in which it was largely the wealthier classes who first wore shoes with high heels to “elevate” themselves (strictly for fashion’s sake), and then to elevate themselves to stay out of the filth on unpaved streets.

    Fashion (cultural aesthetics) itself has played a large role in the type and style of footwear used in all cultures.

    The other point you make that I think really needs elaboration with the increase in interest in barefooting is alignment. The paper you mention shows that injuries still occur in barefoot populations, just in fewer numbers than in shod populations.

    What that points to is a lack of understanding of how to treat musculoskeletal alignment issues that cause those types of injury. Something that really needs to be addressed if this trend is to last – lest people become immediately discouraged due to injury from sustaining any type of barefoot or minimalist-footwear practice…

  9. Wow! This was a great read! Reading so many advertisements and articles about the need to go barefoot has left me extremely confused. Your article really helped me establish a balance about whether I should or should not wear shoes, and I’ve come to the conclusion that if my feet truly are that adaptable, I might as well enjoy both lifestyles! Thanks for your research!

  10. This was one of the most comprehensive looks at barefoot running I’ve seen. Thanks!

    And I agree with Tuck and a few others who point out that, sometimes, you need *something* to protect your feet from the surface. The Tarahumara huaraches are, clearly, one of the better solutions for that. I’ve been using and making huaraches and not only do I love them for running over tough surfaces, but I like them for walking (as does my wife, who doesn’t run). My feet don’t get dirty, and I get to walk in a more natural gait… often a 2 mile walk (to downtown and back) would leave my feet or back in pain. But in the huaraches… no problem.


  11. I’m really pleased that folks are enjoying this piece. It was the test run for one of the chapters of the book I’m working on, so it’s especially gratifying to find out that there might be a bit of an audience out there for this.

    For the folks who are looking to this for advice about whether or not to run barefoot, I think you should realize that I’m still ambivalent about this. I tend to run barefoot on the beach, but wear very cheap running shoes when on trails or pavement around my home; but I live in Australia and I respect the possibility for thorns and other sharp objects even in seemingly benign looking grass (never mind the snakes). I also wear steel-cap boots when working around the farm, especially with the horses, but still trash a pair of Crocs every year or so and have both ‘everyday’ and ‘nice’ thongs (aka ‘flip flops’ in the US) to wear depending upon the dresscode of an event (yes, I’m told it’s a sign that I’m becoming Australian).

    In other words, I don’t think one type of shoes is uniformly better or worse, but I do think that we need to understand that our feet are being shaped by the sort of footwear that we habitually use. From the angle of our halux to the hardness of our soles, these are malleable. Our shoes grow our feet in specific ways, sometimes with longterm consequences for our health and wellbeing. So if you’re having foot problems, the answer might not be to wrap your feet in more and more ‘protective’ foam or rubber, but it also might not be to throw away your shoes and go nude footed for the rest of your life.

    Good luck and I hope your feet stay happy!

  12. From what I see running in shoes is the least of our problems with shoes. A large percentage of population appears to suffer knee/hip and spine problems that can be directly traced back to their gait/foot operation. Shoes as designed, restrict foot movement and few understand the importance of that not happening.

    There is considerable work needed to be done about the damage of shoes to all of the body not just the foot. For if the foot doesn’t work properly it is likely the rest of the biomechanics of the body don’t. At this point we all have our heads in the sand re this.


  13. Greg,

    I really enjoyed this posting. I’m thinking about studying the cultural aspects of the current barefooting phenomenon for my anthropology dissertation, namely what cultural norms and values might create such a strong aversion to the practice by such a large portion of American society. Heck, even when I talk about going barefoot around my friends, they go ballistic with “hippy” comments and start talking about disease risks, etc. You’d almost think I was suggesting that I was going to walk around “pantless” 🙂

  14. Worth having a look at Chi Running. This is a technique purported to allow pain free running and draws on ti chi as a way of “natural movement” This technique can be used with or without running shoes and focuses on a fore foot strike. I am currently in the process of learning this technique and so far the results for me are very encouraging. I am doing this in a minimalist shoe as opposed to running shoes. When I first started running barefoot I was getting a lot of calf strains and since practising Chi Running this pain has subsided. I don’t believe its the fact that I have no shoes on but the technique used for running is what lessens the amount of injury.
    Your article has some great balance. You have evened up the argument somewhat, however the barefoot extremists will probably cry foul and the Shod extremists as well !!!

  15. I think the most important thing to note in the top picture of women runners is their posture (not shoes or lack thereof). They all have straight backs (not rounded or swayed) with anteverted pelvises (not tucked!). This posture is common in elite athletes, young children everywhere, people in traditional societies, greek statues and people in western societies before the 20th century.

    Check out Esther Gokhale giving a presentation at Google on YouTube about anthropologically correct posture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yYJ4hEYudE

    Then check out her book 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back (available on Amazon) to learn more: http://www.amazon.com/Steps-Pain-Free-Back-Solutions-Shoulder/dp/0979303605

  16. I found there is nothing simple about learning to walk and run on bared feet. Experiment being the only route to knowledge (see the Feynman Lectures) I feel I know something about this art. I believe Mr Barefoot Ken Bob is correct in examining the role of the knee in the motion of walking and running. When the lower leg bends at the the knee it rotates on three centers. Knowing this when examining the complexity of the strike of the running foot you know something about how to proceed in examining the motion– you include the motion of the knee and look carefully as you do this because the motions could not be more subtle. Mr Ken Bob is correct that sensory information from the striking parts of the feet inform the brain and the brain through its evolved (experienced) development, and the runners intent, informs the knee how to use those three centers, i.e. what portion and in what way those three centers of rotation will participate in getting the runner where he wants to go, in what time, and at what cost. I like to move on bare feet to enjoy the full reception of this information from the surface that supports me and my motion. Also, when walking, I have noted, while fully amazed, that I can remember every step of the journey and the journey can be any length. I had no idea I could achieve such mindfulness.

    As Mr Greg Downey knows, this subject will stand up to study in depth and I should like to say I believe he ably articulates his hard-won knowledge and information. The subject of moving on bared feet lends itself to the field of Neurobiology–William H. Calvin’s book, “The Throwing Madonna,” comes to mind. There are important lessons to be had in our inquiries about feet–they are our most consistent and common connection to the planet. A lesson I learned from running barefoot concerns the length of our arms. We are not from the branch of primates that live in trees. Our branch, also derived from the Lemur, did not specialize in swinging from branches and vines and our arms did not evolve while doing that. So what did influence the length of our arms, i.e., what produced the proportions of our arms and legs in the schema of our bodies? As one experiments on moving about with bared feet one learns that the teacher is pain. Nature does not let us damage our feet while we are engaged in moving about. Pain from the feet will be of whatever level one needs to learn about what and what not to do. One cannot supersede this pain with one’s will. With one’s shoes off, effective learning is part of one’s destiny. Having learned to walk in rough terrain, one may begin to learn to run. Off on a run one goes. In only a few paces one knows what informed the length of one’s arms. After only a few strides small bits of sharp stuff embed themselves in the soles of your feet. One may imagine sprinting away from the claws of a chasing bear and in so imagining determine that one will continue. One will not continue. The pain will quickly intensify and bring one to a halt. What did we do then, during our evolution? We cleaned the soles of the feet while running. The length of one’s arms is just right for swiping clear the sole of ones foot at the the top of the stride when the foot is nearly facing the sky. I do not think we would have evolved had we not been able to do this.

    In thinking about this business of barefoot versus shod-foot, I believe the next step in our evolution is to recognize and accommodate the fact that life is difficult for all and always has been. The great equalizer among people on Earth is this shared experience of life’s difficulty and our politics must reflect it or we will perish. So interconnected are we in this fundamental way and so dependent are we on the skills and capabilities of each other, so social are we in our natures that to view wealth in terms of acquisitions and not in terms of the quality of our relationships–with each other and with our planet and our fellow fauna and flora–means we will not live much longer and prosper. Whether you be Pope or Czar, peon or pauper, athlete or invalid your life will be difficult. That is the nature of things and health is the only personal wealth. Nature is curiously amoral; life can survive only by consuming life. The great frontier before us lies not only in the stars, but in solving this grand paradox in the sustenance of life.

  17. barefoot is good for some and not for others. its really as simple as that. The “research” on barefoot or minimalist running is miss represented and and hyped past what it is. And i suppose the same goes for running shoes (please dont tell me that shoes increase injuries because those studies are rubbish)

    Simple fact is that both these people have an agenda and money to make. The barefoot industry write books and tell of “people” they “know” that become cured of all these aches and pains, but never seem to tell you about those that get injured. They make up things from studies that were not even apart of the study!

    At least the running shoe company’s work with various professions to seek up to date information! But even they go too far with trying to use big flash words that mean nothing except dollar signs

    PS dont get me wrong im not against barefoot running. Just the morons that think they know everything because it worked for them and they have been doing it for ages so it must be good type people.oh and the the ridiculous reasons they come up with. you people need to be held accountable, just as you say the running companies must be.

  18. Greg,

    You mention that certain unshod populations have denser foot bones and thicker toes. Seeing that the feet are very adaptable, can the bone density in your feet increase with training? In other words, if my toes aren’t so beefy, will training actually increase the strength of the bones to an extent appropriate for significant barefoot running?

    I know you’re not trying to advocate one approach vs. the other, but I am curious what you think about the actual bone density increasing with training.

    Good article,


    1. John —
      I suspect with the right diet, yes, you could see anatomical features of the feet change. Certainly, that’s what the old research on rickshaw drivers suggests, that they would adapt after they started the job and their feet would change.
      But a lot of the change is likely to be to the soft tissue rather than the bones. Over time though, bone remodeling is likely to occur. Just take it slow, let them rest and recover when they need to, and I’d love to hear what you find out.

  19. can the bone density in your feet increase with training? In other words, if my toes aren’t so beefy, will training actually increase the strength of the bones to an extent appropriate for significant barefoot running?

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  23. Going barefoot in general is better for our feet.

    However, when we run or speed walk on concrete, that’s a different story.

    Our bones, ligaments and tendons are not built for that.

    That should be common sense.

    What are the long-term affects of this???

    I value my feet, especially as I get older, so I wear traditional shoes when I am out walking on the road for two hours every day, and go barefoot the rest of the time.

    Common sense, folks.

    1. There are no surfaces we are not meant to run on, if we take enough time to adapt to that surface. Concrete and asphalt are no worse that hard packed earth in some deserts and other arid areas. Just transition slowly to minimalist shoes or barefootedness, your feet and legs will adapt.

    2. Besides, if you read the article correctly, wearing shoes will not protect your feet against pounding on concrete, but increase the pounding!!!

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  25. Good morning dear friends.
    For first, I pray forgive me for my bad English.
    I am a 60-year-old man living in Romania. I work as a pharmacist in a big hospital in my town, Bucharest.
    I read this article along with the links and comments. And I say it’s wonderful. Very well written and scientifically.
    Since my childhood in a village in the early 1960’s, I have discovered the pleasure of walking barefoot. And this pleasure, being in direct contact with our Nature mother, has become a “hobby”. A hobby that I applied whenever I felt I wanted to be free and happy. At that time, I did not have electricity in my house. So of course, I did not have any media outlets. The Internet was not yet invented. I did not know about “Barefoot lifestyle” or “Earthing”.. “Grounding” etc. I only knew “barefoot as pleasure” as something absolutely natural, so normal. That was my “science”. The key to my happiness.
    And now, I have become a barefoot hiker, very happy to go barefoot everywhere in all the natural places, especially in the mountains. But not only there, but even through the city, on the asphalts of streets or mud. Even through the fluffy snow of the winter.
    Of course, many people have seen me as a Martian or a crazy man. But I did not care about this. It’s my life and my health.
    I have many things to say about this “subject”, but I do not want to cause any annoyance to anyone. I only mean, “In bare feet, life is a happiness,” as Sebastian Kneipp said. And my bare feet are the best shoes in the world.
    I wish you all the best, with health and happiness, in peace!
    Sincerely, Dinu.

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