Ask Pablo: Is Barefoot Running Greener?

Image credit: John Kochmanski, used under Creative Commons license.

Dear Pablo: I have seen more and more people running barefoot. Do you think it is better for the environment?

Barefoot running, or running with so-called minimalist shoes, is a growing phenomenon indeed. A strong interest in the reported health benefits of running without conventional running shoes is driving ever more people to leave their sneakers at home. But what environmental benefits may be associated with this movement? What is the environmental impact of millions of people heading out on their local trails and buying new minimalist footwear?

According to Craig Throne, Merrell's VP of Global Marketing, Merrell will sell half a million shoes globally from their barefoot line in 2011. Having sold 2.5 million pairs in 2010, Vibram has a sales target of 4 million of its Five Fingers shoes in 2011. Such large sales volumes may be cause for concern among environmentalists but could this trend actually be better than the alternative: conventional running shoes or people remaining sedentary.

This new trend has been sweeping through the running world and it has gained a growing number of ardent proponents, and a lot of strange looks. The 2009 book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall (author interview on Amazon.com) is arguably responsible for bringing barefoot running into the mainstream. His book, primarily about the Tarahumara tribe in Northern Mexico (See Video), explores how these people can run up to 500 miles per week, often without shoes.

Why Would Anyone Want To Run Without Shoes?

It is clear that we were all born without shoes but the daily wearing of shoes is actually a much more recent phenomena than you might think. Initially, primitive shoes were developed and worn only for protection in certain environments. In the last 200 years shoes became a fashion accessory and status symbol worn only by the wealthy until they were finally deemed a medical necessity and going barefoot became seen as unsanitary. When Nike developed its Waffle Trainer in 1974 the move towards cushioned, supportive and stabilizing athletic footwear took off.

The consequence of this new footwear was a change in our running technique. Strides became longer and runners learned to land on their heels with their knees almost straight. Despite thick rubber cushioning, this form sends tremendous ground reaction forces up through the ankles, knees, hips, and back, causing many of the common complaints suffered by runners today. Numerous websites list the injuries that runners face (shin splints, plantar fasciitis, tendinitis, stress fractures, etc.) and many of them advocate supportive footwear, knee braces, and expensive orthotic footbeds.

Proper Barefoot Running Technique

Running barefoot shifts a runner's form from a heel-strike to a mid- or fore-foot strike, which generates much lower ground reaction forces. Aiming for a cadence of about 180 RPM will ensure that your feet never extend beyond your knee and that you don't push off (which can result in injuries). Instead, a barefoot runner propels themselves in a sort of controlled fall. Imagine running in place with quick, light steps, and then simply lean forward until you begin moving forward. In his book The Barefoot Running Book Jason Robillard, a barefoot ultra-marathon runner (> marathon distance) and founder of The Barefoot Running University, actually recommends starting off completely barefoot on a hardest, smooth surface like concrete. The reason is that you will get the best sensory feedback to hone your form; land on your heel or push off too hard and you will know it right away and be able to adjust for your next step. It is also highly recommended that you begin very slowly. Half a mile might be enough for your first run. If you do well with that, try 1 mile a few days later, and so on. You can continue to run in your conventional running shoes as you slowly transition. This will help ease the soreness that you experience as your arches and calves strengthen.

Health Benefits of Barefoot Running

We have a love/hate relationship with running. Running is one of the most accessible ways to stay in shape; you don't need to find a pool that's open and you don't need to buy a $3000 road bike, but many of us have experienced running injuries. We have been conditioned to "run through the pain" and that "more is better," but these ideas tend to cause injury and add to our frustration with running. Craig Throne from Merrell says "for some people running became a chore to keep their fitness up." Frustrated runners may become sedentary, contributing to the downward trend in our population's health. Running should be fun and, if it can become injury-free and fun, more people would stick with it and stay healthy. Throne goes on to point out that people get coaching for all kinds of sports, but typically not for running. Just because people can run that doesn't mean they are doing it properly. "We need to teach people to run again," says Throne, which is why Merrell has invested in a lot of barefoot training resources and have partnered with experts like Jason Robillard.

"Barefoot" Footwear Options

While running completely barefoot can be great, you do have a greater risk of stepping on sharp objects or gross things. Looking ahead and being aware of what's on the ground is certainly part of barefoot running but you also have many footwear options. So called "minimalist shoes" are characterized by a thin, flexible sole, no arch support, and no built up heel. These shoes are available in the toe-sock style Five Fingers pioneered by Vibram. Vibram has a Barefoot Running FAQ and many other resources on their website. Minimalist shoes can also look almost like regular running shoes. Merrell has a new Barefoot line and their website features Tips For Beginners, an iPhone App and a Barefoot Blog.

Is Barefoot And Minimalist Shoes Running Better For The Environment?

What is still unanswered is the effect of barefoot running on the ground. Less impact on the runner also means less impact on the ground, and less compaction of the trails. In slippery conditions the barefoot runner will be quicker to shift their weight to avoid sliding around on the trail. It is clear that a heightened enjoyment of running will get more people outdoors, which may increase the level of interest in conservation and healthy lifestyles. Making running enjoyable again would also improve the overall health of the population and would increase awareness of healthy nutrition, which may reduce the amount of calories and volume of meat consumed.

While this is hard to quantify there are some environmental benefits of barefoot and minimalist shoes running that we can quantify. Minimalist shoes such as Merrell's Trail Glove (a mere 350 grams per pair) weigh about half as much as conventional running shoes (around 700 grams per pair), meaning that the environmental impact of manufacturing and shipping them is also about half as much. Since there is less material and less parts there is also less glue and less waste. There is also no built-up heel cushioning, which is usually made of EVA, a nasty petroleum product with a CO2e intensity of 0.82 kg per kg of EVA.

On top of this, minimalist shoes tend to last over two times longer (500-600 miles compared to 200-300 miles) because there is no heel cushion to break down and because the barefoot running style is much lower impact on the shoe as well as the runner. So, in addition to having half the environmental impact as a conventional running shoe to manufacture and transport it to the consumer, the minimalist shoes last over twice as long, making their net impact about one quarter as much as conventional running shoes! Even if the entire running population of the US, estimated at 36 million, switched to minimalist shoes, and if 36 million new runners joined them, the impact of making and transporting their shoes would be half as much as it currently is.

A Warning

Barefoot running isn't for everyone. Most of us have spent our entire lives wearing shoes and the support structures in our feet may not support barefoot running. As always, consult with your physician, chiropractor, tax attorney, car mechanic, and next-door neighbor before beginning any physical activity. As with running in conventional running shoes, do not increase your distance by more than 10% per week and if you experience any pain, stop!


Image credit: Terry Orsi

May 1st, 2011 was declared International Barefoot Running Day by the Barefoot Runners Society. To mark the occasion I joined a team from the San Francisco Chapter of the Barefoot Runners Society at the Devil Mountain Run 10k race (a fundraiser for Oakland Children's Hospital). This team embodied the spirit of barefoot running. Not only did this team fund-raise more than any other team but one, but each team member (many of them completely barefoot) ran with a smile. Whether for competition or fun, for health or to be out in nature, there are many reasons to run. Barefoot running takes away many of the reasons people have to not run and turns it from a chore into something fun.

Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for TreeHugger.com and Principal Environmental Consultant at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.

More TreeHugger Articles On Going Barefoot:
Barefoot Running Is The New Treat For Your Feet
Green Eyes On: Can Walking Barefoot Make You Healthier?
Terra Plana Launches Evo Barefoot Running Shoe

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