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Dr. Nirenberg wearing his Vibram Five Fingers

Dr. Nirenberg wearing his Vibram Five Fingers

As one of the first podiatrists to recommend barefoot running, I was surprised to see the results of a recent survey conducted by the well-respected Podiatry Management magazine.

On the week of May 20th this year, the publication’s online newsletter asked podiatrists:

Do you recommend barefoot running?

The results were as follows:

Yes, but only for certain foot types: 14.19%

Yes, for all runners: 2.21%

No: 83.59%

For those of you who are not math-whizzes, this means one in six podiatrists recommend barefoot running.

The survey had superb participation from the podiatric community, with a 768 podiatrists responding.

It is great to see such a robust number of podiatrists beginning to explore the possibility that our feet do not need all the support and padding that the billion dollar shoe, insole and orthotic industry has been touting.

As background, Podiatry Management’s editor, Dr. Barry Block, has featured a wide-range of content in his magazine, website and newsletter. He brings to light new innovations and technologies, and other  advances related to podiatry and feet.   I often learn more about what is going in the podiatry profession from his publications than from the American Podiatric Medical Association.

However, Dr. Block’s survey implies that a key factor in whether or not barefoot running should be recommended is “foot type.” In fact, 14% of podiatrists believe foot type IS a determining factor.

“Foot type” is a broad term. It often refers to whether your foot is flat, high arched, normal or something in-between. From a biomechanical perspective foot type refers to whether your foot excessively pronates, supinates or is neutral. Some say your foot type can best be determined by looking at your footprint, and in this vein, these podiatrists advocate the “wet test” whereby you wet your foot and then look at your footprint. There are many other methods of foot typing (i.e. Rossi’s Podometrics, the Greek foot, Egyptian and so on) Dr. Block did not specify what he meant by “foot type” but he probably was thinking of the first description (flat, high arched or normal).

Today I know that foot type has no bearing on your ability to run barefoot.

     Many years back, I too (like these podiatrists) did not realize the remarkable ability of some runners to “tune in” to their own biomechanics and run barefoot, regardless of their foot type.

Years ago, when I was fighting off painful plantar fasciitis (heel pain) and my feet were beholden to wearing orthotics while walking and running, I believed foot type was a factor in whether someone should run barefoot. Even after I transitioned to running barefoot and in the process rid myself of plantar fasciitis, I still held onto this notion. In time though, I began to study barefoot activity and I began to treat barefoot runners. I have had barefoot runners come to my practice from almost every state in the country.

I have seen first-hand the incredible achievements of people who are committed to running (and walking) barefoot. It has totally turned everything I thought I knew upside down. I have seen severe high arched people run bare, as well as people whose feet are like two pancakes. One barefoot runner was even able to make suction noises with his feet on my office floor! I have seen the young and elderly; the thin and morbidly obese all run barefoot. I have even seen a man with a serious brain injury run barefoot (he believes it helps his mind function better than shod running).

Who Shouldn’t Run Barefoot?

When I say “barefoot” I am talking today about minimalist shoes or barefoot. If you are running in an area where you fear cuts or scratches to your feet, then you should opt for minimalist shoes. If you fear a puncture wound from rusty nails or worse, then you should not run there. Period.

Personally, I always wear minimalist shoes: in my office, at meetings, weddings and so on. I do go completely barefoot at times but this is infrequent and only in the safest of areas. I never wear orthotics or “supportive” shoes anymore. (In case you just found my website, orthotics, supportive shoes and arch supports weaken foot muscles, decrease sensation, and only reinforce the need for more foot support. They do have their place, but in general, they are over-prescribed.)

If you have a health issue or injury that impairs sensation, function or circulation of your feet (or anywhere in the lower extremity), you should speak with a knowledgeable podiatrist before doing any barefoot activity, running or walking. (This advice goes for all people with health issues who want to run–whether barefoot or in shoes!).

Who Should Go Barefoot?

Everyone else! This, of course, assumes you want to. There are people who prefer to rely on thick, supportive shoes and supports. That is fine. It is a choice one makes. If you choose to be free from these devices, you have the power to do this.

Barefoot running is exhilarating and can even be life changing, but like most sports it is not without the risk of injury. Like those who run with their feet encased in thickly padded footwear, you should use proper form (albeit ‘barefoot” form), choose a safe place to run and go slowly at first.

Summary

Years ago I said that very few podiatrists would recommend barefoot running. I was wrong. I admit it. And I am happy about it.

Run On! (and Run Bare!)


  • Victor Sudakov

    Dear Dr. Nirenberg,

    When I hear about podiatrists recommending “barefoot running”, I can’t help suspecting that in reality they are recommending some minimalist footwear. You podiatrists don’t mean going or running really barefoot, skin-to-ground, do you? How many percent of you do?

    As a barefooter, I feel very sad and disappointed about the current highjacking of the word “barefoot” which means “not wearing shoes or socks”. Really, that is the meaning of “barefoot”, and not some new marketing buzzword for a new brand of shoes, no matter how minimalist they are.

    Thank you for reading this.