Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Primal Feet Update: Biomechanics of Barefooting and My Results So Far

Harvard University's Skeletal Biology Lab has an informative site describing the results of their research on comparing the biomechanics of running barefoot (or with a midfoot or forefoot strike) to running with a heel strike as usually done when wearing shoes with a cushioned heel.

Biomechanics of Foot Strikes & Applications to Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear

Although they focused on running, their findings equally apply to walking.  I don't run, but I walk often. Since I have switched to using Vibram Five Fingers shoes almost exclusively, I have spontaneously transitioned from heel striking to mid/fore foot striking when I walk quickly. 

When I started this, I could only walk about 5 minutes at a time on concrete in the Five Fingers.  My feet and calves got quite sore from the unaccustomed use.  Gradually I have increased the time spent walking.  After 3 weeks, I can now walk more than 1 mile with a fore/mid foot strike before my feet get too tired to continue and I revert to a midfoot/heel strike (but still softer than what I would have done before Five Fingers).  I also feel the my feet building up new cushions/callouses on the forefoot.

This practice also made me aware that I used my left and right sides quite differently in walking. Some years ago, when I got some Feldenkrais Method "Awareness Through Movement" education sessions with Jeff Haller, he noticed that I spent more time on one foot than the other when walking, but I could not detect it myself -- at least not enough to see it correct.  Walking on concrete in Five Fingers made me acutely aware of different stride on my left and right foot -- whereas the right foot contacted softly and the heel made minimal contact with the pavement, the left foot came down harder with less control and the heel jarred against the pavement (after midfoot contact).  As I walked along for about five minutes spent just noticing this, it gradually diminished and apparently self-corrected.   I've noticed more muscular soreness in the left foot and calf than the right, and had some transient soreness in the left groin not present on the right.

I first learned about this way of walking about six or seven years ago from a book titled Tai Chi Walking: A Low Impact Path to Better Health by the physicist and Tai Ch'i Chuan teacher Robert Chuckrow.  Chuckrow describes how to walk "softly" as in Tai Chi, even on concrete, wearing minimal footwear (as recommended by Tai Chi masters).  He described how he makes his own moccasins and uses them as his exclusive footwear, and he encourages his readers to make the same footwear.  I however continued to wear conventional "walking shoes" and found it difficult to practice the low-impact walking in those thick-soled shoes that have cushioned heels.  The shoes virtually forced me to heel strike.

So far I consider this experiment positive.  I will keep wearing the Five Fingers as my primary footwear for the foreseeable future.  I have in the past three weeks (since starting the experiment) worn my New Balance walking shoes only a couple of times.  Before wearing Five Fingers I didn't notice that the New Balance shoes confine the front of my foot and feel uncomfortable, compared to the Five Fingers.  Now I prefer the Five Fingers even to my Birkenstocks, which have a pretty wide forefoot bed compared to other shoes.  I'll update my report as time passes. 


Jake said...

If I use perfect posture, I lessen the impact of my foot plant.

When I feel jarring in my stride, I instantly know that I am leaning forward rather than being up right.

Greg said...

An imbalance usually means you need bodywork. I would be interested in your thoughts in that area. I am rolling my foot on a PVC pipe right now.

Anonymous said...

I've been resistant to purchasing a pair of Vibram 5-Finger shoes, mostly because I've been running barefoot in both grass and on concrete. I started exclusively on grass, but progressively added running (jogging, really) on a sidewalk.

My experience:

I no longer heal-strike during sprint (at speed maintenance), running, or jogging at slower speed. I still heel-strike while walking.

Initially my calves were sore, and eventually I noted significant hypertrophy in the calves (it's a nice secondary effect, I suppose).

Now I can run up to 3 miles without problems in my left hip, as it's always been problematic in the past with any running exceeding a mile (with conventional "running" shoes).

I remain tempted to purchase a pair of Vibrams, but bare feet is still free... that is, until I step on broken glass on a neighborhood run.

Chris said...

Vibrams will ruin in after you adapt,took me a full year with posture issues ect, regular shoes will feel like soul numbing moon boots.
NOW after 3 years they have allowed me to do something I haven't done in 20 years due to knee surgeries,run!!

Don said...


My jarring was one side only, and dissipated just by staying aware of it.


I have imbalances from injuries and modeling. I have had a lot of intense bodywork (Rolfed twice) and so far no relief from the imbalance that way. For about 12 weeks I have been using the Healthy Back Institute program to correct the imbalances, and it has done more for me than any bodywork I have tried so far. I plan to post on it sometime in the future.


I have had gastroc/soleus hypertrophy from this experiment also.


sounds similar to my experience, only I'm at the early stages. Seems that barefooting is its own type of bodywork

Anonymous said...

I just spent a week in the Virgin Islands and the only form of footwear I took with me were my Vibrams. Since returning, I discovered that all of my old shoes felt confining and painful. I suppose I've finally reached the point of no return. I just purchased a pair of the Flow style, with the neoprene upper, because it's too cold to wear the other styles right now, and I just can't go back to regular shoes.

I have noticed an emerging awareness in my stride, and discovered that I've been falling in and out of a ball-first foot strike. It becomes more natural as each day passes.

Also, thanks to your previous post about Primal Feet, I got a set of toe stretchers. Thanks for the Amazon links!

Justin said...

Good to hear you've had such success with barefoot-ish walking as with Five Fingers.

Like you, my gait corrected having switched to VFFs so that I land either midfoot or forefoot (also taking fewer strides). Incidentally, there is actually some controversy as to whether heel strike walking is more efficient than forefoot.

See this article:

All I know is that I can't really heel strike walking on hard surfaces without it being very uncomfortable, so that leaves me somewhat skeptical.

I didn't see you mention it, but which VFFs do you wear? My favorite for walking and everyday use are Classic Five Fingers.

I see this post as a review in a way, and I aggregate reviews weekly on BirthdayShoes -- so I'm going to pick this up on Sunday for the weekly round-up post of latest reviews.

Justin @

Pampered Mom said...

I always find the barefoot /VFF discussions intriguing. I've always preferred going barefoot, but then have run into a great deal of foot pain (plantar fasciitis) so had reverted to shoes/inserts at the behest of the podiatrist.

The more I read the more I'm thinking that the way I walk needs to be changed. I'm going to have to check out the book you mentioned as even with the shoe/insert change the issue hasn't resolved quite as I would have liked.

Sanjeev said...

there should be moccasins you can buy or make that pass for "business professional" (aka herd follower)

here's an alternative to the vibrams - summer only & not for office wear, obviously

Sanjeev said...

dammit, I realized later my post could be condescending or even insulting.

Sorry ...

if anyone finds really roomy shoes that are acceptable for an accountant working at a bank, I need such shoes too.

At the moment I make do with some Dunham EE. My toes don't hit the sides, but the laces obviously must press on the arch from above.

i'm wondering also if there is a non-irritating adhesive that could be used to glue rubber to the bare sole ... the barest you could get without the risk of glass in your foot.

not exactly a paleo thought (for give me father for I have sinned ... )

Don said...


Will one of these work for you?

I have a pair of the Londons (bottom of page). Next best thing to five fingers in my experience. Last a long time too. My pair is more than 20 years old, still kicking (I replaced the soles many times and probably will do it again this year--might need them for some events).

Don said...


I wear the KSO Trek most of the time.

Sanjeev said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Don.

I will look around for those, see how they fit.

Tuck said...

Heel striking while walking in Vibrams on hard surfaces is an "advanced" technique, but it is possible, and it is more efficient.

I've done some very long walks in Vibram, and find that I heel strike when I can, but revert to a fore/mid strike on rougher terrain.

I recently walked about 4 miles on what was supposed to be a run (cut short by a sore knee caused by a fall skiing) and found that only by walking with a heel strike was I able to make progress and not irritate the knee.

Heel striking while running is a bad idea, but you can control the landing when walking, and put the heel down gently.

Don said...

Hey Tuck,

yes, I have noticed the same, since I first posted this, I now find myself using a gentle heel strike, more like a heel and mid-foot strike.

Neil12682 said...

I work in a legal office, and usually get by with Vivo Barefoot brand shoes. They have some more formal options.