Foot fitness: agility, flexibility and strengthening exercises for the feet

Barefoot Running Can Cause Injuries: Another Look

I love following the barefoot debate.  It gets me a little heated and also makes me laugh… I’m emotionally invested. The recent article from the NY Times: “Barefoot Running Can Cause Injuries, Too” was no different. What I enjoyed, more than anything, was an inbox full of questions.  Students and fitness instructors from around the world asked me what my opinion was and most importantly: did this worry me?

I will use the term barefoot and minimal interchangeably – although barefoot means NAKED feet and minimal refers to a shoe which offers relief from cushioning, heel lift, motion control and arch support.  A minimal shoe also allows the toes to separate –  in a very wide toe box or ideally, with each toe in its own pocket, assisting separation, like the Vibram FiveFingers® shoe that was sited in the article.

Folks, running minimal doesn’t SOLVE running injuries.  Approximately 75% of shod runners are “heel strikers”  (Hasegawa et al., 2007) – meaning, they touch down heel first – similar to a normal walking gait (but faster – and with 1.5-3x their body weight of impact with each step).  Running barefoot properly requires that the runner land either midfoot or forefoot. The study cited in the article does not indicate if the “new to barefoot” runners learned and mastered a new strike pattern. Nor does it state whether “new to barefoot” runners engaged in a foot fitness program anytime prior to the beginning of the study.

Most running injuries are a result of over-training, and in this case, it seems the bone marrow edema may be a lack of proper technique  compounded with under-developed and foot and lower leg muscles. For example: imagine that you had your arm in a cast for 8 weeks. Once the doctor removed it, would you do push-ups? Of course not. You would begin with therapy to rehabilitate the muscles, connective tissue and joints.  You would re-build local strength and endurance until you were prepared to re-introduce the pushup exercise to your body again.

The "Foot Fold" exercise can help restore mobility at the MP joints.
The “Foot Fold” exercise can help restore mobility at the MP joints.

As a “new to barefoot” runner – you need to consider the atrophied muscles and stiff joints that have been cast in shoes for  (how many?) years.  The cushioned heel lifts have allowed you to develop a contracted calf complex; therefore eccentric training is paramount. Walking steep hills (15% on a treadmill – 3.0 speed – have fun!) and other smart dynamic barefoot workouts (yes, like willPower & grace®) are crucial.  Additionally, strengthening the intrinsic foot muscles are particularly important, which is why it’s important to perform foot specific exercises.

Barefoot running FEELS GOOD – so “new to barefoot” runners often do too much, too soon.  If practiced correctly, in fact, it feels as though you are floating. The turnover rate per minute is about 180 – meaning that your foot is not in the air very long. Minimal runners tend to plantar flex (point toes) as they approach landing, minimizing impact, leading to a more springy leg, absorbing impact. Core engagement is also a key factor in deceleration and minimizing impact. However, these are learned and practiced skills for most traditional shoe-wearers and heel strikers.

New York City Podiatrist Dr. Emily Splichal asserts:  “Everyone should have their running gait recorded and assessed.” Understanding your own gait is an incredibly helpful tool – as you will need to make micro-adjustments along the way – since you are not depending a man-made corrective device in your shoe.

Am I worried about the NY Times article?  Not a bit.  My position? Any new method or sport must be practiced at length to be mastered, why would anyone begin a running program without preparing for it?  With regard to barefoot sports, Vibram Five Fingers® brings you close to being barefoot – but this shoe does not make your feet stronger or solve running injuries. YOU build strong healthy feet, while being barefoot (or close to it). YOU reduce impact by using your body more functionally, more efficiently.  Only you can teach your body to move like a primal (human) being. However – you need to learn the drills and practice: after all, thanks to traditional athletic shoes, you’re domesticated now. You’ll need to re-learn primal skills. Have patience, be consistent, rest, recover and take good care of your feet (this includes massage). Be aware; tune into your body, and be safe out there.

Stacey Lei Krauss

Stacey Lei Krauss

Stacey Lei Krauss is the creator and developer of the globally recognized barefoot cardio fusion program, The willPower Method®. Specializing in foot-fitness since 2000, she helps people understand why and how to develop healthy, fit bodies, from the ground up. Reiki practitioner and student of transformational arts, she's a mover, writer, traveler, and general truth-seeker. Recipient of the 2014 ECA Best Female Presenter Award, she's the Mindful Music Advisor for Power Music® and has programmed educational courses and workouts for Nike , Vibram FiveFingers®, BOSU®, Schwinn® Cycling, and Peak Pilates® .


  1. Jen DeSalvo
    Monday, April 15th, 2013 at 10:35 am ·

    Thanks for the reply! I kept checking the blog for your response and totally makes sense! Jen DeSalvo NJ

  2. Suzy Yeagley
    Wednesday, April 10th, 2013 at 4:58 pm ·

    I noticed in the article that in the study, the first group of runners was told to run just as they always had, “same mileage, same shoes,” which they indicated was between 15 and 30 miles a week. “The other runners were given a pair of Vibram Five Fingers barefoot-style shoes and asked to begin incorporating some barefoot-like mileage into their runs, but gradually. They were told to wear the minimalist shoes for one mile during the first week of the study, two miles the second, three the third, and then as much as they liked.”

    The key word here is INCORPORATING. Not “replacing” their 15-30 miles per week with shorter, barefoot runs to condition their feet gradually. As it is written, the second group still continued to run between 15-30 miles per week, but for the first week, one mile of each run was minimal, and then they put their traditional shoes back on and ran the rest of each run shod. As far as I know, for a study to be scientific, only one variable should change at a time, so I assume that for both groups, the total distance was the same as the old habit. If this is the case, of course the barefoot runners were injured! They fatigued their un-trained feet in the VFF’s, and then put their shoes on, and kept running on muscles that needed to recover from new stress. In addition, they continued to run most of their distance in the “supportive shoe,” keeping the lower leg in the habits of the shod position, and preventing the lower leg (and the muscles, ligaments and tendons that wrap into the foot) to adjust properly with the foot, therefore increasing the chance of injury, due to putting the shoe BACK ON.

  3. Meg
    Wednesday, April 10th, 2013 at 9:58 am ·

    This may be off topic, but I recently saw my holistic doctor and I was wearing my VIbram’s. It led him to tell me a story about his travels to a very far and isolated area in a foreign country where he had to get there by a small boat after flying and taking a bus. He went to provide medicine to these people that had no access to it. He said not only did they not have illnesses (with the exception of open wounds from a stick puncture or something) but they of course had no shoes. He said they were incredible fit and flitted about the land on all kinds of terrain, including sharp rocks and cliffs without a problem. We talked about how they knew no different; they were conditioned since birth. We, however, are not.
    It makes me wonder why mother’s instantly place shoe’s on their child’s feet when they begin to learn to walk. Won’t it change their gait pattern from what is natural as the people my doctor saw? I often see’s toddlers falling because they stubbed the toe of their shoes. Or I see them leaning forward in an attempt to find balance that is off set from their natural balance stance. Or they lift their leg higher in an attempt to also lift the shoe off the ground to initiate a step. Am I making sense? So, if we develop a certain gait pattern with shoes at such a young age, I would wager to say, it can’t just change in a few months when we stop. Just like the people my doctor witnesses had no problems without shoes, but what if we were to make them start wearing them?
    Please let me know if I’m on the right path here!

  4. Vincent Gerbino
    Wednesday, April 10th, 2013 at 9:54 am ·

    This is an informative article that hits lots of important points. As a teacher of barefoot runners, I concur that running barefoot requires more than just doing it.

    I have been to willpower * Grace classes, including ones taught by the author of the article I’m commenting on here. She used an important term in the class per-warm up: “educating the feet” to feel the ground, to be aware of their position and thus guide the body. And I attest that willpower classes are among the best methods for developing this sense of awareness-making the feet “smart”.

    Barefoot running, in of itself, won’t solve running injuries. But because it affords the freedom of movement the feet and legs needs, barefoot running is the portal to access the realm of injury free running.

    A traditional running shoe restricts the movement of the feet and ankle, and thus trains the muscles there to encourage heel striking, which pounds the joints and causes many typical running injuries.

    Of course,, one must build up the muscles in he feet and ankles once the shoes come off, or massive fatigue will put you on the sidelines quickly, and keep you there for quite a while. A barefoot training class is a very good idea to help prevent this,