Born Free: Barefoot Running

Barefoot RunningI’ve just stepped into a new world! I guess I’ve been caught in a jungle of rubber and synthetic materials for too long. In the past few months, the topic of barefoot running has weaved its way into my training sphere and conversations, and I’ve become more and more curious.

Coming from a background in sports orthopedics and other medical specialties, I’m highly intrigued by recent studies touting significant findings for the benefits of running barefoot, versus running with traditional supportive shoes and the complications that can result. The results are well supported. For example, in a January 7th posting, Orthopedics Today discusses a recent study showing that “running in shoes exerts more stress on the knees, hips and ankles than running barefoot or walking in high heeled shoes.”

My personal orthopedic resource, local Maui physician Clay Everline MD, Seton Hall University Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic SurgeryBoard Certified in Sports Medicine and Internal Medicine, and founder of Waves of Health, shared his thoughts with me. “One thing I enjoy about the FiveFingers® is the increased proprioception from the spread toes and the molded arch support. It nearly forces you to run with proper biomechanics. Barefoot running is natural running where the foot contact with the ground helps you correct your stride by sensory biofeedback.”

The FiveFingers referred to by Dr. Everline is a barefoot running shoe from Vibram that is wildly popular and accommodates many other sports beyond running. You may take a second look at this gecko-like foot cover. They weigh about 6.7 ounces and can be custom tailored up to a size EEE. Running a marathon in animal pad-like rubber sheaths seems really interesting, and is getting noticed in the running world. There are barefoot running blogs with serious topics and conversations that cover everything from lack of arch support to “do everything” barefoot. Some tout their back pain has been cured by the change that has occurred in their posture. Others claim they no longer suffer from plantar fasciitis or other stresses to the foot and ankle joint causes by soft, fluffy shoes.

As an experiment for this article, I recently took a few laps in the sugar cane fields here on the North Shore of Maui to try barefoot running for myself. I thought of the movie Born Free and running not from the lions, but with them at early dawn in my new raw feet. While it took dodging a few sticker bushes, rocks and unsuspecting cane roots jutting out from the raw dirt itself, I actually was digging it! I liked feeling the traction I could get between my toes and the direct contact was great.

Now I didn’t run a lot of miles — just enough to get a real feel (and get the shot!). I also experienced an incredible connection to the earth, as I discovered those that ran before me have expressed the same. My feet were stained for a bit by the rich red minerals in the dirt, but all was good.

Suzie CooneyHere on Maui, our feet are pretty tough from walking over the rocks to the water to surf, fish and windsurf in some spots, or just from literally flattening out over time without wearing regular shoes. Many locals and others prefer to hike barefoot in the slippery jungles, or with a split toe aquatic shoe called Tabis. Going to the mainland in real shoes is no longer that simple. Our feet get a little wider and more swollen from our lifestyle. Forget my Italian shoes! Most of our days on Maui are spent barefoot, and no one ever wears shoes in one’s home except at fancy parties or other rare occasions. But since I wear supportive shoes in my day-to-day training with clients, I’m more used to it than most.


Before you toss your sneakers and hit the ground, literally, it’s best to take a few precautions. If you tend to pronate or if you are more flat-footed, it’s highly suggested to ease into the bed of something with some support. If you try one of the special shoes designed for barefoot running, proper sizing is important. Most people who use custom orthotics to help correct biomechanical deviations need to consult with their specialist and adjust accordingly.

Dr.  Everline also says, “Watch out for sharp rocks and sticks! Barefoot running should be avoided by those who have diabetes, specifically diabetic peripheral neuropathy, and other sensory problems of the feet, due to increased risk of infections from cuts that go unnoticed. Feet should be meticulously checked after each session if going completely barefoot. Cuts should be cleaned and dressed.” So be careful of  medical conditions that may contraindicate this new style of running — always check with your own doctor first.

You will also need to change your gait as you walk or run (see Mary’s recent article Cross Training and Injury Prevention with more info about gait for runners). Most of us strike the ground with our heels first and this seems more natural. We all seem used to the cushy, supportive shoes that cradle our feet with very thick soles. Practice landing softly on the balls of your feet or more mid-foot. Your calves and ankles will also get stronger, and you can learn to run with less impact and torque on your body and joints.

Start with short distances to build the supportive muscles of the foot, and be mindful of hard running surfaces such as asphalt or concrete. Look for softer surfaces at first, like hard pack dirt, the sand, grassy parks or special cork tracks. Additionally, it can take up to 2 weeks to get your legs and muscles used this new form of running.

If you’re a barefoot runner, please share your experience!


March 01, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Wonderful article! Please keep us posted. I recently read “Born to Run” and am inspired to try barefoot running once I deliver this baby (just a couple more weeks)! I figure since I’ll be easing back into running it’s a good time to ease into barefooting. I have my adorable Five Fingers (I got the pretty blue and green ones) and will let you know how it goes…

Shirley Buntin

March 01, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Great article! Can’t wait to try. I’m such a “plodder” style runner (and slow!) maybe this will be just the thing.


March 01, 2010 at 4:19 pm

I too read Born To Run and am totally hooked. I am new to running but find that I run best in my Vibrams (VFF’s). I am waiting for Spring when I can wear my Sprints again since my Flows are on back order.


March 02, 2010 at 6:52 am

I have been running barefoot every day for 7 years on the beaches of Florida averaging 25-40 miles a week and have never been injured. NEVER! High tides, low tides, howling winds, dead calm every day and every run is unique. Skimming the water with every stride is a joy. I read Born to Run and was inspired to run longer distances. Finished an impromptu half marathon on Valentines day with no real preparation other than the Cliff bar I stuck in my jog bra! We’ve become so technical, so science based in our workouts sometimes is best to just let it all go and run for the freedom and pleasure it brings.


March 02, 2010 at 9:16 am

Hi! This is a great article! I’d like to add a suggestion that people who are trying to learn to barefoot, or those who live in places where going totally unshod (i.e., places other than Maui or the Florida beaches – grin) check out kigo footwear. kigos come in two styles, a women’s Mary Jane, and a unisex slip on that is great for hiking and athletics. The shoes weigh approximately 5 ounces each and have a very thin (1.5-3.5mm), flexible outsole. They’re eco-friendly, breathable and stylish enough for sports or everyday. Nothing against VFF – they’re awesome – but there are times when a traditional shoe style is more appropriate than a colorful foot. Growing numbers of people in the US and around the globe are running, hiking, doing water sports, traveling and simply wearing kigos and discovering these shoes are a great minimalist alternative. I hope you’ll check them out at


March 02, 2010 at 11:32 am

Excellent piece. Have you seen Ken Bob’s site?

I started barefoot running on beaches, like everyone else. Unfortunately I don’t live on the coast, so my beach running is on vacations. Here, I use the golf courses in the area.

Except right now, it’s winter, it’s about 30 degrees (F), & there’s about a foot of snow on the ground. So for now, I’ve got the runners on like everyone else 🙁

Valerie Cannon

March 02, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Hi, loved this article. My family lives on Coronado (San Diego) about 2 blks from the beach. Went for a recent visit and didn’t even unpack my running shoes, was just inspired to run every day (4 mi) barefoot, it was great!!! Can’t do it every day where I live most of the time, but it’s a permanent habit now on family visits, very free-ing and intuitively natural. I’m hooked…^..^


March 03, 2010 at 11:32 am

Barefoot running sounds interesting to me, although I’d definitely need to use one of the specialized shoes.

Suzie or anyone else who’s a barefoot runner, do you know if there’s any benefit to starting out on a treadmill as a way to start conditioning your feet for running without the support of a “traditional” running shoe?

Rachel Coleman

March 03, 2010 at 3:50 pm

As a fellow Athleta Sponsored Athlete and I love that you hit this subject!

I first heard about barefoot running while reading the book “Born To Run.” I have been training to run the Salt Lake Half-Marathon “barefoot” this April. I started with Vibram Fives about 5 months ago. I wore them around town, when traveling and in the gym (weight training, boot camp and cardio). I started running 2 miles/20 minutes three times a week and I have worked up to running 6 miles in them.

Your gait does change when running barefoot. I found that my calves took the brunt of it, but they adjust. My feet have become smaller too! It shocked me. I guess my feet were weak and flabby before. Who knew!

Since I live in Utah, most of my “barefoot” training has been indoors. When the snow finally melted I threw on my shoes and ran on the grass. It was so liberating! It really is a different feeling.

My 13 year-old daughter is training for the half-marathon with me. She loves wearing my Vibram Fives. We wear the same size. Sometimes we will swap shoes at the half-way point in our mileage.

Be sure to find a place locally where you can try them on. The sizing is a little odd. If you buy them and find that running “barefoot” is not your thing, just know that they are great boating and water shoes:)
~Rachel Coleman

anne marie

March 03, 2010 at 6:09 pm

Great article, and yes, it is all THE buzz around the running world it seems like. I haven’t jumped on the bandwagon (yet), but definitely see the benefits of at least slowly incorporating it into your running routine. I def agree w/starting out in small increments (just like if you were using a more minimalist shoe), and running on softer surfaces.

And the topic makes me wonder about kids shoe’s and what’s currently out there for them. I look at my own kids and there aren’t many ‘minimalist’ options out there…at all. In fact it almost seems like the opposite. My kids tennis shoes have so much cushioning, and now’s the time in their lives when they are developing their ankle/foot strength. hmmm..
anyways, thanks for the info, oh and you look FAB in the pic!

Catherine Dickson

March 04, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Hi Suzie,

Your article is beautifully told and is wonderfully written and descriptive. I really like the barefoot principle of running in general. Something we tend to get away from in our thoughts altogether.

Thank you for the inspiring reminder to engage in this natural approach to running. I’ve had plantar fascitiis plenty of times and would love to experience this!!!

Btw, you look great in the photos…actually makes me want to get out there and run right now.

P.S. I appreciated your reply to me the other day, many thanks and best to you in the months to come!

Angie Bishop

March 08, 2010 at 7:28 pm

I am a barefoot runner and happy to say that all of my injuries and aches and pains are no longer plaguing me and am able to up my mileage so far to 36 miles a week.
I run on streets and sidewalks here in Des Moines when the weather will allow and on the treadmill in the winter.
I started slowly at half a mile and kept building up until it was to hard to switch between shoes and bare. I ditched the shoes and have not looked back! My 5k and half marathon times both improved tremendously!
I have had a sliver or two of glass in my foot that was easily removed with tweezers and frankly living with 4 boys I step on more dangerous objects in my living room than I do outside! It hurts for an instant when a rock or something gets stepped on but nothing major. I have never stepped in poo. I get asked this all the time! I watch where I am going ahaha! I enjoy running more than ever and encourage everyone to try it out!
I have a blog where I often talk about running and raising my four boys!

Rachel C.

March 10, 2010 at 12:07 pm

i’m looking into the five fingers shoes. i saw them on the tube this summer in london.


March 10, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I think barefoot running is really iffy. It definitely seems like all the rage right now, but living in a climate much colder than Maui, I don’t think its something I’m going to try on any sort of regular basis. Its fun to play some barefoot soccer every now and again in a field, but running regularly barefoot is beyond my abilities / climate I think 🙂

Running Betty

March 10, 2010 at 7:22 pm

I’ve read a lot about barefoot running since I read “Born to Run” in Jan, but this is the first time I heard “Barefoot running should be avoided by those who have diabetes.” Interesting.


March 12, 2010 at 11:28 am

Running Betty

I’ve stepped on my share of glass & splinters, which so far haven’t required medical attention, although once my boyfriend had to remove one, as it was at an angle that I couldn’t really see it. But a tab of peroxide or rubbing alcohol to clean it out & I was right as rain!

With diabetes, isn’t there an issue with wounds being slower to heal, or some such? Fortunately I’m not diabetic myself, so I don’t know the particulars, but I recall reading something about that making a diabetic more susceptible to infections.

Heather runfastermommy

March 16, 2010 at 5:34 pm

I am so intrigued by the barefoot running movement, and have been doing a lot of research into it as a part of my education. I haven’t gone barefoot quite yet (this summer!) but I did switch over to the less cushioned Nike Free’s. I am in love with them!

Karen Silverman

March 23, 2010 at 11:22 am

Hi there. Thanks so much for the article, it was very enlightening. I’m a martial artist who loves to run to support my martial arts. In martial arts, we almost always are barefoot as a way to stay grounded and feel our bodies underneath us. I am intrigued by barefoot running but I usually run on pavement and sometimes on our nearby bike path which is a combination of dirt and small pebbles. I run in Nike Free shoes and wonder how they fit into the barefoot running concept. I think the VFFs are interesting but I haven’t gotten up the courage to spend the money on them yet. I’m heading off to Mexico with my family next week and will try some barefoot running on the beaches there. I’d love any feedback on the Nike Free’s in terms of helping support barefoot running. I love my Nike Free’s and wonder how you think they compare in terms of helping build foot and leg strength and preventing injuries. Thanks so much.

Deb Dutra

May 13, 2010 at 1:15 am

Hello, I read about Vibram FF’s and barefoot running in Januaray. Bought my first pair in February. Absolutely love running barefoot. The connection with earth is so overwhelming, a that should be experienced at some time or another by runners.
Living in New England the weather is pleasingly unpredictable. On the first week of really great Spring weather week I was ready for that long run, it felt great…..until Friday when my achilles tendon let me know I went just a little too far….it is now almost 4 weeks, one set of xrays, an MRi, 4 trips to the Orthopedic later, and my only question to everyone is……when can I start running again! So runners take it slow and easy …. dealing with the discomfort of the achilles tendon is a piece cake, not be able just jump up at 4:30 a.m. throw on running clothes and head out is painful!


May 13, 2010 at 2:01 am

Ladies, the VFF are hard to find and almost everybody is on back order. I checked their site for retailers and found the store in MS had an ample stock w/ good color selection in woman’s sizes. They just shipped me a pair of Sprints I purchased to surf in. I’m not a runner but I love my VFF. Strengthen ankles/prevent ankle sprains is what caught my eye as a tennis player. (no, I don’t play tennis in them) FB cult VFF member


May 13, 2010 at 3:26 am

Hi! On a recent business trip to Boston (days after the Boston Marathon) I forgot running shoes, and only packed my cross trainers. After 2 miles of running I already was having IT band pain and knee pain. I decided what better place to buy new running shoes than Boston? I went to City Sports, and Jose looked at my feet, showed me his Vibrams, and asked me a lot of questions about what type of runner I was. Based on my answers, he wanted me to just TRY the Vibrams and run around the store. WOW! They felt awesome! I was running up and down the aisle in the store in disbelief. I have only worked up to about 3 miles so far, but I ran in them the very next day and had NO IT band or knee pain. I would rather spend my $$ on shoes than on physical therapy and doctor’s visits because of pain and injuries. I felt like my feet, ankles, and legs were getting a much bette workout also. I plan to alternate them with a pair of traditional running shoes and see what happens…..I am training for a Half Ironman in July so I need to work up my mileage eventually!


May 13, 2010 at 3:43 am

I love barefoot running as well, but doesn’t make sense home in the city so my Nike air rifts are the closest to barefoot, I’ve been running with them for years!


May 13, 2010 at 4:45 am

One weekend day every summer for the past 8 years I drive out to the beach to spend the day. I always, always start my beach day with a 4 mile barefoot run, and it is one of the highlights of my summer. It feels great to feel real earth under my feet!


May 13, 2010 at 5:31 am

This was a great article. I would first say that if your are going to run barefoot or in VFF in a city away from trails and the beach, start on a school track, or better, grass. Hit the grass medians. As a running store shoe/run guru once told me, many people who get paid to run do not run on concrete. Just be careful. Posture is the foundation of great running form anyway and one of the the keys to running efficiently and injury free, shoe or no shoe. Please check out as a great complement to the barefoot running discussion. Let’s all be mindful so we can run for a lifetime! Chi on, Amy


May 13, 2010 at 7:22 am

I am a New York City dweller – all my life! I have pounded the pavement walking all over the place and really did not start running until about 12 years ago. I quickly found out I pronate. I have bunions – one really bad on the left side. There are no arches left – you name it. For most of my running there is nothing except concrete. I am working with a foot doctor on correcting some of the problems where possible. Any suggestions on the barefoot running????


May 13, 2010 at 7:33 am

I have been running in VFF for almost 3 years now -mostly on pavement since I live in Washington, DC- and absolutely love them. I used to have problems with shin splints, but running mostly barefoot, I can immediately tell when my gait changes and my feet are not hitting the ground quite right so I adjust and avoid injury before it starts. I run in them summer, winter, rain, even snow! Dry, fluffy snow is fun to run in as long as you keep moving. The only time I put on my shoes this winter was when the streets were covered in melting slush over a layer of ice and my feet got wet and went numb. I love trail running in them as well and they’re great for adventure or mud runs where you’re going in and out of the water. I concur with Rachel C. -my feet have definitely gotten smaller as my arches have strengthened and contracted. I definitely encourage everyone to at least give barefooting or nearly barefooting a try -you’ll discover muscles in your toes and feet that you never knew you had! 🙂


May 13, 2010 at 8:48 am

I’ve been working toward barefooting since reading Born to Run last spring. I got some Vibram 5-fngers (takes a little getting used to the look of them!) and some Nike Free shoes. At first I hopped like a boxer in my Vibrams and ended up with terrible calf soreness (could hardly walk for more than a week). Since then I’ve built up my running ability (hadn’t run in decades) wearing the Nike Free’s and getting used to a 3 mile run as a regular thing. I think about my gait a lot and am distressed to see so many other runners with such terrible running posture (being a yoga teacher I’m very atuned to alignment).
Tried out the Vibrams for a run recently and it was an epiphany. My gait had to adjust, I realized I was doing a heel strike with the Nike Free’s. I was much lighter on my feet, felt great and springy on the run and loved that I could feel the ground beneath my feet. I choose a route that included mostly trail with a 1/2 mile street run to get there and back. I’m really excited to find more great “barefoot” routes on trails in and around East LA. What a joy!
Really happy to see Athleta sharing this info with others.
(really happy that Athleta makes such great clothes so we all look great while we run and for after too!)

Suzie Cooney from Maui

May 13, 2010 at 10:45 am

Hi Joan,
Thanks for sharing your experience here on Athleta Chi. Everyone learns so much from each other’s running styles and practices. Amazing how our bodies can adjust.

Keep up the miles and keep the feet happy.

Warm aloha,
Suzie Cooney, CPT Maui Suzie Trains Maui

Suzie Cooney from Maui

May 13, 2010 at 10:51 am

Aloha Vrginia,

I know how those annoying bunions can slow one down. I’m glad that you are taking precautions to seek medical guidance. The structure of the foot s complicated and the force production we put on all the small bones is impressive.

Pronation is more common it seems than supination. The arches of our feet are a critical component of the foot and absorb some of that force as well.

Please do ask your doctor if he/she feels you can see this in your future. It will depend on factors that they can best monitor. I’ve seen all kinds of feet and foot injuries and it could be in your futue, it’s best up to them.

Be well and thanks for sharing,
Suzie Cooney, CPT Suzie Trains Maui

Jack Mingo

May 13, 2010 at 11:01 am

I’ve been running through urban areas, broken glass and all, in what my running buddies mock as “shmittens” (shoe mittens, as opposed to the “gloves”). Maybe I’m just too cheap to buy another expensive product in order to run “barefeet,” so a few months ago, I got a pair of snug running socks and painted the bottoms with a dozen ultra-thin coats of liquid latex (available as mold material from art and craft stores). I’ve run several hundred miles without injury of any sort, and all the shoe-related knee and shin pains have gone away. Maybe some day I’ll spring for the gloves…when I run out of this can of latex….


May 13, 2010 at 11:02 am

Thanks for the encouragement! I live close to the beach and run on the sand during low tide. It’s nice and flat – you don’t have to worry so much about the weird angles straining one side and not the other that come from the higher pitch and shorter beach of high tide in our area.

I’ve had some athletically inclined people give me “the look” when I answer yes to the barefoot question. Now I can tell them there is research out there to support barefoot running and the benefits you can reap.


May 13, 2010 at 12:34 pm

I haven’t tried barefoot running- I live in the city. However, I bought a pair of Newton shoes last summer. They are designed with little support- they are very light and have a bit of cushion at the ball of your foot for propulsion forward. I loved them from the get-go! I’ve had my best marathon and 1/2 marathon times ever, and no injuries since. I even got my husband to try them and he agrees. I’ve run for 27 years and these shoes have really increased my love for it. I have intentions of trying the Five-Fingers…if I can leave my Newtons.


May 13, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Read/loved Born to Run. Had tried barefoot running on our FL beaches years before thinking I was doing it “right.” Stress fractured 3rd metatarsal arch. Pretty flat-footed and after a life time (57) of running in orthotics and cushioned shoes, I believe I just needed more time to adjust and tried it too quickly. I’ve tried a few more times since, took a Chi Running class (highly recommend if you are serious about barefoot running) and learned a lot. But I still get a pretty sharp pain in one calf and knee pain in the other when I go barefoot. I may need to take it even slower…so a word of caution if my mistakes help you begin. BTW, my podiatrists over the years have been great, but they tend to think the barefooters are surgeries or accidents waiting to happen. Trying to find a happy medium and transition is the key. I’m waiting for that book. 🙂

serena garcia

May 13, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I love running in my vibrams! I hadn’t run very much in the last year and really did start from scratch running in them…reduced speed and reduced time initially. Time and speed have increased quickly, but I do have tight and sore calves everyday after I run. I do not run on my heels anymore which happens to make for a much happier running experience for me. I hated shopping for running shoes, but I will never trade my vibrams for anything! I have always had weak ankles and calves and they are much stronger after only a month of running in them. My suggestion for running in vibrams is to start very slow so as not to stress your feet and ankles even if you are used to running several miles at a time. Happy running!

Sam K.

May 14, 2010 at 5:19 am

Barefoot is awesome, running home from work I did 2 miles, then took my shoes off when I got to the side of a bike path and I felt renewed! Mud squishing through my toes, I had a permenant grin on my face! Did another mile, then did the same thing yesterday. I had energy I never knew I had! Born to Run is a must read for everyone! I am working on pavement as I too live in a northern midwest city, and have VFF’s but actual barefoot was too cool!
Has anyone noticed that no one wants to make eye contact with the crazy barefoot woman?

Kim DeAnda

May 14, 2010 at 6:32 am

I have been trail running in the dunes, mountains and washes of Arizona, dancing (zumba) for 2 hours a day and hiking from Florida to California ALL in the Vibram 5 fingers and it has CHANGED MY LIFE. The occasional bruise on the bottom of the foot is the only pain I EVER feel anymore from working out (except from being the usual sore from pushing the limits of course). With regular tennis shoes my hips, shins and knees were constantly sore, I couldn’t even get a pedicure because no one could touch my shins.
It took a while for my feet and ankle muscles to build up and I agree with breaking your feet in first. I was terribly sore!
We do 6 to 7 miles a day in the desert, even my dog wears her vibrams! I highly recommend barefoot running.


May 17, 2010 at 6:02 am

While barefoot running on beaches does pose risks, in the form of rocks, sharp grasses, etc. I would like to caution those who run on golf courses and grassy areas to think about the high pesticide use in creating lush grasses, you may be exposing yourself to deadly chemicals which are readily absorbed by the skin on your feet.

Michelle Sommers

September 27, 2010 at 12:06 pm

I had to begin barefoot running on the beach this summer since all the sand replenishment has made the beach too soft & slopey for wearing shoes. It was strange at first, with a few days of sore calves, but after that it seems to be fine. Definitely a different way of running & I feel like it’s a completely different workout. We do not have a lot of shells or sharp objects to worry about in our area so it really is the only way to continue my beach running like I enjoy. I have actually enjoyed running barefoot by the water’s edge & into the shallow surf – salt water is great for everything!


January 12, 2011 at 8:50 am

Just came across this article, and wanted to add my experience with VFF. I have flat feet and I pronate. For years, I’ve tried running in fits and spurts, but always ended up with knee pain to intense to keep the running up. When I can across VFFs, I figured I’d give running yet another try. It worked! I’ve been running for months now with no pain. It’s amazing – running is finally everything I’d hoped it could be!


March 11, 2011 at 11:14 am

I hope this finds you all well.

Saw the news this morning about the tsumani warnings.


July 23, 2012 at 6:28 am

This was great! Thank you! I moved to the beaches of Forida and have started going barefoot every where I go. I have done a little bit of running barefoot but not for my running routine. I have been thinking of new shoes but just came across your article. Now, I know the new path I will take. Love it!

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