Barefoot Hiking?

Howard E. Friedman, DPM
Trail Walker

5-fingeredshoe1Let your thoughts drift back to your last great hike. Scenic vistas. A waterfall or bubbling brook, perhaps. And a rocky trail, no doubt. Now imagine retracing your steps on that hike, but barefoot. If mega shoe manufacturers like Merrell and Nike can convince you, you may just start hiking in a minimalist shoe closer to a ballet slipper than a hiking boot. Of course, if everyone decided to hike really barefoot, there would be no need to purchase the new breed of “barefoot” shoes so heavily advertised at more than $100 a pair.

Barefoot running has actually been around for a long, long time. Ancient messengers ran long distances barefoot or in simple leather sandals. Kenyan long-distance runners are famous for running and training barefooted. Western runners ran in a flat and flexible shoe, until, that is, modern running shoes were designed. Today’s running and hiking shoes and boots, in contrast, are stiffer with an elevated heel and thicker sole.

While there are passionate advocates for running, walking, and hiking actually  barefoot, the term “barefoot running” can often refer to a shoe that is very flexible with a thin sole and little if any mid-foot or arch support. Such shoes are now labeled “minimalist shoes.” 

Clearly, this type of footwear is not for everyone.  Individuals who have experienced severe foot problems such as torn tendons, significant arthritis of the foot, or medical conditions that require specific footwear, should consult a foot specialist before trying a minimalist shoe. People who are quite comfortable with their current hiking or running shoes, may find that the reinvented “barefoot shoes” enhance their trail experience, but only with occasional use.

The Hype

Minimalist shoes have definitely gone mainstream. Nike says on its website that wearing their Free Run minimalist shoes leads to stronger feet and ultimately enhances quickness. Merrell, in a section of its website dedicated to their minimalist shoes, lists the following benefits: these shoes will correct your posture, connect you to the terrain, and strengthen your feet and legs.

And Vibram, creator of the iconic Vibram Five Fingers footwear that looks like a glove for the foot, claims on its website that their shoes will strengthen the foot and leg muscles; improve motion in the ankles, feet, and toes; stimulate nerve receptors in the feet, which will transmit valuable information to the brain; improve posture by lowering the heel to the ground; and  “allow the foot and body to move naturally--which just feels good.”

Myriad web and blog sites launched by self-appointed barefoot running gurus also tout barefoot and minimalist shoes with similar claims. Underlying all the claims is the belief that today’s over-engineered running and hiking shoes are to blame for many sports-related injuries of the feet, legs, knees, and hips.

What the Research Shows

Recent research does support measurable biomechanical changes in the walking cycle when switching from wearing traditional shoes to going barefoot.

Researchers at Rush Medical College found that for people with arthritis of the inside, or medial, compartment of the knee, shoes increase the forces on the painful joint by almost 12% compared to walking barefoot. An article in Nature Reviews Rheumatology in 2011 concurs and adds that forces on the knee are reduced even when walking in a flexible-soled shoe with a flat heel compared to when walking in traditional walking shoes.

Italian researchers published in 2009 that experienced barefoot runners demonstrated decreased stride length, decreased impact force, decreased contact time, and increased stride frequency when running barefoot. With shorter, more frequent strides, the force of impact on the heel decreased by about 27%.  

The mechanics of why barefoot running decreases the force of impact has been explained and published by researchers led by evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, PhD, of Harvard University, in a study supported by the company Vibram. People accustomed to running barefoot experience significantly lower forces as the foot strikes the ground because those runners land with the forefoot first, the researchers report. The force of initial impact generated is three times lower than someone striking the ground with the rearfoot first.

Comparing a barefoot runner landing on his forefoot first to someone wearing shoes landing on his heel first, the overall force decreases by seven times. By the time the barefoot heel strikes the ground, forces have dissipated.

The key, according to this research, is being what is called a “forefoot striker.” Forefoot strikers take a higher number of shorter steps. Also, barefooters consume less oxygen due to the lack of shoe weight. Even someone wearing traditional shoes, however, will decrease his or her overall force of impact a small amount by landing on their forefoot first, that is, walking on tip-toes, Dr. Lieberman explained in an email.

What We Don’t Know

Enthusiasts for barefooted running, walking, and even hiking suggest that rates of injury will decrease as more people exercise in more flexible shoes with no elevated heels. An article in the British Medical Journal in 2007 estimated a wide range of between 19-79% as the number of runners who develop an injury.

No concrete proof exists, however, that running shoes are the cause of injuries. Indeed, no published data exists about whether people who have traditionally gone without shoes have a lower incidence of injuries, although Dr. Lieberman’s Harvard lab will be publishing that data in the future. 

Moreover, walking, hiking, or running barefooted without proper conditioning could very well lead to injuries such as achilles tendonitis or even metatarsal stress fractures. Needless to say people who actually walk, run, or hike barefooted are at risk of simple skin lacerations and puncture wounds.

What To Do?

Any hiker considering experimenting with hiking in minimalist shoes should try the following: walk around your house for a few hours wearing socks but no shoes. See if your feet, legs, knees, and hips are comfortable. Then, don the backpack you would wear on a day hike filled to the same weight normally worn and repeat the exercise. How does it feel?

If you are pain free and are enjoying the experience, you may be a candidate to wear a pair of minimalist shoes on at least part of your next hike. Allow at least eight weeks of conditioning to become comfortable “barefoot hiking.”

Podiatrist, board-certified foot surgeon, hiker and Trail Conference member Howard E. Friedman, DPM, is a frequent contributor to Trail Walker.