ergonomics · running

To go barefoot or to wear “foot coffins”? Searching for a middle ground…

Someone commenting on the blog recently referred to traditional running shoes as “marshmallow foot coffins.” Love that expression. I’m not sure where exactly it originated but “Shoe Coffins” is the title of a blog post here.

From the blog post:

“The shoe arguably got in the way of evolution,” said Galahad Clark, a seventh-generation shoemaker and chief executive of the shoemaker Terra Plana, based in London. “They’re like little foot coffins that stopped the foot from working the way it’s supposed to work.”

(Foot coffins! Too perfect!) Last year, I was hobbled by unbearable and untreatable foot pain whenever I attempted even moderate running and hiking — until I went barefoot. While barefoot is surely not for everyone, I say: foot coffin dogma be damned!”

They were responding to a blog post I wrote about lawsuits against wobbly unstable running shoes which were marketed as toning devices. Turns out they didn’t tone but some people did fall and twist their ankles.

But “marshmallow foot coffins” refers more broadly to the ever expanding range of protective running shoes designed to get everyone out there, whatever their gait, whatever their foot problems. Buying a running shoe is now like buying a medicial appliance. You need to know if over pronate or under pronate, if you need a hard structured shoe or a soft padded one.

I’m part of the problem. I wear serious running foot wear with orthotics after a bout of plantar fasciitis and two stress fractures. (Not caused by bone density. They tested. I have rock star bone density.)

But last year after reading lots about barefoot running, I decided to give it a try. I ran barefoot in the playing fields near my sabbatical rental house in Canberra, Australia. I felt like a kid again. I didn’t keep it up though.

Aside from feeling great my toenails also loved it. No more black or missing toenails. Bonus. But I didn’t keep it up once I returned to the land of pavement.

I’m not a complete convert to going barefoot for physical activities. But I do see the benefits. I love doing martial arts in bare feet. My feet seem stronger as a result. For CrossFit I’ve switched to minimalist athletic footwear and I like that too.

My daughter brought the barefoot habit home from New Zealand. There stores had signs, “no shirt, no shoes, no worries.” And lots of young people went barefoot everywhere. It’s not so well accepted here and she’s taken to carrying duct tape flip flops in her back pocket in case she’s somewhere people insist she wear shoes.

I’m not there yet though I’ve been going barefoot days when I ride my road bike into work and forget to carry shoes. How about you? Bare feet? Do you like it? Have you tried it? Tell us your story…

Some resources:

Throw out your orthotics and shoes that will last a million miles (CrossFit London on strengthening exercises for feet)

The Benefits of Going Barefoot

The Once and Future Way to Run (New York Times)

“We were once the greatest endurance runners on earth. We didn’t have fangs, claws, strength or speed, but the springiness of our legs and our unrivaled ability to cool our bodies by sweating rather than panting enabled humans to chase prey until it dropped from heat exhaustion. Some speculate that collaboration on such hunts led to language, then shared technology. Running arguably made us the masters of the world.

So how did one of our greatest strengths become such a liability? “The data suggests up to 79 percent of all runners are injured every year,” says Stephen Messier, the director of the J. B. Snow Biomechanics Laboratory at Wake Forest University. “What’s more, those figures have been consistent since the 1970s.” Messier is currently 11 months into a study for the U.S. Army and estimates that 40 percent of his 200 subjects will be hurt within a year. “It’s become a serious public health crisis.”

Nothing seems able to check it: not cross-training, not stretching, not $400 custom-molded orthotics, not even softer surfaces. And those special running shoes everyone thinks he needs? In 40 years, no study has ever shown that they do anything to reduce injuries. On the contrary, the U.S. Army’s Public Health Command concluded in a report in 2010, drawing on three large-scale studies of thousands of military personnel, that using shoes tailored to individual foot shapes had “little influence on injuries.””

From Why Things Hurt: Shoes: good support or coffins for your feet?

Bare Feet

11 thoughts on “To go barefoot or to wear “foot coffins”? Searching for a middle ground…

    1. Yeah, I’d definitely be afraid to go out walking in town without shoes. What if there’s broken glass on the ground?

  1. I haven’t run in bare feet, but have found great benefit in ditching the shoes for other activities. Weight lifting is very different shoeless; I finally felt like I was getting the right form for deadlifts when I went barefoot. My only caveat is to work into it slowly, we all probably have underdeveloped foot muscles from wearing shoes our entire lives.

    When I was 60 lbs heavier, I found it too painful to be barefoot on hard surfaces, such as the kitchen floor, and wore shoes most of the time. I’m glad I’m now able to go about unshod!

  2. I still wear shoes, but I wear New Balance minimalist training shoes and Nike 5.0 Free Run 3 running shoes, about 60% of the time now. The rest of the time I wear Under Armour training shoes, which are quite flat, and so are excellent for days when you are weight-training legs (squats, deadlifts, etc.) and want a little more stability than a minimalist shoe might offer. I also prefer the Under Armour shoes on days I am lifting heavy while in a standing position.

  3. I’ve been used to going barefoot during yoga practices for years. When I moved to Arizona and suddenly discovered the weather was warmer, I started going barefoot for casual use (in the house, around the yard) just about all the time (save when the outside temperatures made some foot protection a necessity). I still wore shoes for all the places where it was conventionally expected to wear shoes (and I still do).

    When I started running a couple of years ago, I did so in traditional running shoes. Oddly enough, that was the only time I experienced any real pain from running. So I switched, first to a New Balance minimalist shoe, then to Vibram Five Fingers. Soon afterward, I started wearing the VFFs for just about everything. (Seriously. In the past 2 years, I have worn dress shoes for 2 graduation ceremonies, for my bridal shower, for my actual wedding, and for National Honor Society inductions. That’s it.) Now, the only time I hurt myself while running is if I accidentally step on a sharp rock — which, of all the injuries I could have, is a relatively minor and quick-healing one.

    I’m sure it’s not optimal for everyone, but as someone who already had an affinity for barefootedness and who was experiencing problems with conventional footwear, for me, the switch made a lot of sense.

  4. I’ve heard a lot of good things about going barefoot; I had a boyfriend who made a point of being barefoot as often as possible to toughen the soles of his feet. And there was a time when I was staying at The Farm in Tennessee (an agricultural hippie commune; it’s awesome) and my shoes got too saturated with water to wear, so I spent the rest of my time there barefoot. Barefoot on grass is easy; barefoot on gravel paths is not.

    I also apparently have completely bog-standard feet, because I only buy the cheapest generic discount-store running shoes and I can run like the wind in them without my feet ever complaining, so shoes aren’t such a trial for me.

    (I also have one stupid vanity-related reason for hesitating to go 100% barefoot: my feet are pretty narrow, and I think it would make me a little sad to see them broaden.)

  5. I like to say that I grew up barefoot, spending as much time as possible without shoes (probably why my feet are so big now!). I still love the feeling of taking off my shoes at the end of the workday. Nothing like it. But to run in? Not so sure about that, though the proponents are very vocal about the benefits. But I did read this today, so maybe it’s just as well I’ve stuck with my old supportive shoes (and arch supports).

  6. My $0.02: I gave the barefoot running trend a good try, I really did. But my calves never adapted and I switched back to squishy shoes and I haven’t regretted it.

    I like to take a live-and-let live attitude: if you like running barefoot, cool! If not, cool!

    But I do agree with the superiority of minimal shoes for lifting– it makes all the difference to be able to feel my feet…

  7. I’ve always preferred being barefoot or wearing very little on my feet. I hate socks. Vibram Five Fingers were a revelation for me. I even hike in them now. I started wearing them after I tore an Achilles tendon–it healed poorly and I was never able to run properly in regular running shoes. Even my “everyday” shoes are kind of minimalist (mostly Toms and stuff like that). Most of my running friends have converted to minimalist shoes and found that their chronic injuries and need for orthotics have disappeared. Having said that, people should wear what works for them. We’re fortunate to have so many choices.

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