2016, The Times ran a provocative article by Oliver
Moody on the advantages, or otherwise, of barefoot
running. Several letters followed, including one by me.
Bad news for barefoot fanatics:
running shoes are rocket fuel Oliver Moody, Science
Correspondent June 15 2016, 12:01am, The Times.
Zola Budd competed for Great Britain in
the 1984 LA Olympics barefoot. BOB THOMAS/GETTY
In the mid-1980s a teenager from South Africa changed the art
of running. Not only did Zola Budd set world records in
the women’s 3,000m (indoor) and 5,000m and win two consecutive
world cross-country titles by the age of 20 but she did it all
without any trainers on.
Today, thousands of British runners follow in her bare
footsteps. The human foot is a masterwork of evolution,
they argue; wrapping it up in rubber can only lead to injuries
and feeble ankles.
A study suggests that barefoot running may not be quite
the joyful return to nature it is cracked up to be. Scientists
in Australia have found that although trainers cramp the
foot’s natural springiness they make up for it by driving the
muscles to work harder.
Over the 40 years since the first modern running shoes came on
to the market injury rates have scarcely budged. Critics
claim that the human race evolved to lope around the savannah
with naked feet and that putting a cushion between our soles
and the ground hampers our gait.
Some studies indicate that trainer-shod feet tend to shift our
balance slightly backwards and make it harder to exploit the
inherent bounciness of our arches. Other academics think
that relying on shoes leads to weaker ankle muscles that are
more vulnerable to the stress of training on hard surfaces
over long distances.
Researchers at the University of Queensland have allayed many
of those fears with a comprehensive experiment looking at how
runners adapt to both styles. They recruited 16 amateur
athletes — nine men around the age of 24 and seven women of
about 19 — who were used to running in trainers.
The scientists put reflective stickers on various parts of the
participants’ feet and lower legs and used a 3D camera to
obtain a detailed picture of what happened as they ran on a
treadmill that registered how much force was falling on it.
They then injected the runners’ right feet with tiny needles
that recorded electrical activity in two important muscles,
the abductor hallucis — which runs from the heel along the
inner side of the foot to the base of the big toe — and the
flexor digitorum brevis, which controls the other four toes
from the sole.
The researchers also stuck surface electrodes onto the skin
over two other muscles, the soleus and the medial
After three minutes’ warm-up the athletes ran about 20 strides
in a pair of Asics trainers and a further 20 with bare
feet. Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society:
Interface, the scientists said that the foot muscles were all
at least 50 per cent more active when the runners were wearing
Their arches were also about a quarter less springy but the
shoes appeared to make up for this by acting as a sort of
There were, however, some hints that barefoot runners may be
on to something, if only in a small way. Running with
naked feet gave the participants about 7 per cent more
propulsive force and made them land very slightly further
forward towards the balls of their feet.
The scientists said that the human foot was highly adaptable
and that trainers actually made muscles work harder. “It
seems that running shoes act as an additional spring in series
with the foot,” they wrote.
Perhaps Ms Budd would agree: she converted to trainers in the
later stages of her career and now works for a company that
sells running shoes.
BORN TO RUN (16 June)
Sir, The research by scientists at the University of
Queensland on running shoes v bare feet is admirable, though
complicated, and leaves no doubt that you had better wear
trainers (“Bad news for barefoot fanatics: running shoes are
rocket fuel”, June 15).
Not for a moment would I have wished ever to have run barefoot
in any track race. For the four-minute mile, a special
craftsman made my running shoes wafer-thin, and even then I
imagined by whittling down the spikes that morning that there
might be a scintilla of an advantage (I used the grindstone in
the physiology department of St Mary’s Hospital in London to
But oh, the splendour of running barefoot across the sand on
the shore as a boy has never left me. The opening shots
of Chariots of Fire reminded a weary world that not
everything can be analysed.
SIR ROGER BANNISTER
RUN FOR FUN (17 June)
Sir, You report (June 15, and letter from Sir Roger
Bannister, June 16) on the apparent joys and advantages of
barefoot running. I am 70 next year and, for reasons
of fun and fitness, I have started running again, something
I have not done seriously since my school days. I wear
trainers not on comfy treadmills but on hard roads and rough
mountain trails. This past weekend I completed a wild
and very muddy Wolf Run. Come on you barefoot
advocates, join me over such terrains without some sort of
sensible footwear, I dare you!
JOHN R LING
BAREFOOT BRAVADO (18 June)
Sir, Knowing that I would be competing in inter-grammar school
sports my parents bought me a pair of spiked running shoes
(letters, June 16 & 17). At my own school’s sports’
day I was told in no uncertain terms to remove them as they
would give me a distinct advantage.
In protest I ran barefoot and won the high hurdles, 100 yards
and 220 yards races. The head was furious; my house
THE REV CANON GODFREY HIRST
Lytham St Annes, Lancs BAREFOOT GAMES (20 June)
Sir, Sir Roger Bannister (“Born to run”, letter, June 16) can
recreate the joy of running barefoot on sand by competing in
the next modern Nemean Games in the 2,000-year-old stadium in
the Greek Peloponnese. Like the Olympics, the event is
held every four years, but the Nemean Games are open to all,
however old or unfit. I celebrated my 75th year by
taking part (the oldest in my group was 83), running the 90
metres barefoot, as the rules decree, and wearing a Greek
tunic. I loved it. Sir Roger will have to wait
until 2020 for his run but I bet he won’t be the oldest
participant: the oldest man this year was 89 and in 2012 a
100-year-old woman took part.
FLEET OF BARE FOOT (21 June)
Sir, I’m surprised that in all the correspondence so far
(letters, June 16, 17 & 18), no mention has been made of
Bruce Tulloh, who regularly ran barefoot and broke the
four-minute mile on grass in New Zealand without shoes.
He was the Mo Farah of his day and regularly represented Great
Britain in international athletics meetings. He beat me
on more than one occasion, but he wouldn’t have known it
because I was one of a cast of hundreds.
RUNNING (24 June)
Sir, The research paper from the University of Queensland
(report, June 15, and letters, June 16, 20 & 21) merely
suggested that running in shoes was more effective over 20
strides. In the early 1960s I undertook an experiment
under Dr Griffith Pugh (the physiologist of Everest
fame). We found that running in bare feet was at least
1 per cent more efficient, in terms of oxygen cost, than
running in lightweight shoes.
The human foot has evolved to run— but not on tarmac!
When I ran from Los Angeles to New York, I wore shoes; when
I ran a sub-four minute mile, I wore spikes, but when
running on a track, on cinders, on the beach or on grass, as
I did this morning, I run in bare feet. It’s more fun.