Adventure, Adventure Prep, The Great Adventure

Shoes or Barefoot: The 7000 Mile Question

Last summer while camping with philosophers I read the book Born to Run. This book has sparked quite a buzz among adventure types. It looks at super-marathons—runs of fifty miles or more in a single go—and suggests that running barefoot is healthier and safer than wearing shoes.

Alternately, foot condoms.

That’s actually not the main point of the book, which is more about how humans evolved to run long distances, and the search for the people who still do it (safely) today. During that quest, author Christopher McDougall found evidence that modern athletic shoes increase running injuries by weakening the foot. The solution he suggested—citing a number of sports doctors and coaches—is to wear thin-soled, unsupported shoes or no shoes at all.

People have fixated on this.

Barefoot running has become quite a trend. Before you sprint out and try it, let me warn you: suddenly switching your running routine to barefoot will lead to a stress fracture. Try downgrading to thinner shoes first. Start with a short jog. Slowly build your way up.

But the real issue is, is it worth it?

The Theory

The reasoning offered by McDougall and others is simple. Padded, supportive running shoes with thick heels are relatively new. Even 30 years ago they didn’t exist. But we’ve been running marathon+ distances safely for tens of thousands of years.

So what do these shoes do?

According to the theory, they over-cushion and support our feet. The muscles don’t have to work as hard because the shoe restricts them. The foot muscles weaken and injury results.

That makes logical sense, but where’s–

The Evidence

To support this, McDougall mainly relies on time trend analysis. Padded shoes are supposed to prevent injuries, but do they? He compares the injury rate of professional athletes before the modern running shoe, to professional athletes today. If the best modern running shoes help prevent injury, we should see a decline in injuries over time.

But injuries haven’t declined.

The implication is that athletic shoes don’t do anything to help prevent injuries. Barefoot enthusiasts point to this as proof.

They’re wrong.

A time trend is an interesting reason to look into something, but it’s not proof. Many factors could affect running injuries over forty years. The evidence McDougall gathered is an interesting starting point, but that’s all.

This is a hot issue, so surely more studies must have been done, right? I decided to…

Ask An Actual Doctor

This issue matters to me because I’m going to be walking, say, 7000 miles or so. And, oh yeah, I have a busted ankle.

So as long as I’m hanging around a straight-talkin’ ankle/foot specialist, I thought I’d ask about barefoot running (or hiking).

“Wear some fucking shoes,” my surgeon told me. “I don’t mean those five-fingers. The best athletic shoes you can afford.”

I worried he was biased. “So have studies been done that actually show that? More padded shoes lead to less injuries?”

He sighed. Shit was getting serious.

“No. It’s a big debate with smart people in both camps. So far, no research has shown us a clear answer either way.”


The Seven Thousand Mile Question

I always prefer to make my decisions based on science. Science is hands-down the best tool we have, followed closely by rational philosophy, then instinct, then personal experience, and somewhere way down at the bottom of the dredge, hope and faith.

But in this case, science fails to answer my question. So I have to make a judgment call.

Do I wear thick, supportive athletic shoes? Or thin canvas shoes and sandals? 

(I’m not literally going barefoot so those are your options.)

This is the seven thousand mile question. Choosing correctly could make my journey safer and more comfortable. Choose wrong, and I might be crippled when I’m 40—or laid up and suffering halfway to Brazil.

What do you think? If you knew you have arthritis in your ankle, and will be walking across two continents, what footwear would you equip for the journey?

I have some thoughts of my own on what to choose, but I’m eager to hear your opinion first. What do you say?

Update: You can see the shoes I finally chose—and why—in 1400 Mile Shoes


61 thoughts on “Shoes or Barefoot: The 7000 Mile Question

  1. Rebekah says:

    Now I’m not a scientist but after my car accident the arches of my feet crashed. I couldn’t walk without the supportive shoes and the arch supports that I wear. Since you have an ankle problem maybe a high top can help with keeping your ankle more in line and tracking the way it should be. That is just my opinion, but I can tell you that I used to work retail and light shoes with no support do not hold up more than a few hours where a supportive shoe I could work a 16 hour day and still be able to walk around a bit.

    • I do like high tops Rebekah. Though the ones sold as “hiking boots” are atrocious. I have a great thin-soled canvas pair that is getting worn out right now, but maybe a new version of those would be good if I go the thin-soled route…

      That is great into about the supportive shoes and the 16 hour workday.

  2. Kate says:

    I think the heavy athletic shoe is out. The new running shoes are much lighter and flexible, which makes sense. I would wear those, but have a spare pair of something else. If you go barefoot you open yourself up to skin abrasions that can easily get infected.
    Dr. Mom

  3. Jaguar in Arkansas. says:

    It is what you are used to. if your used to running around all day in thin sneakers or barefeet, big, bulky padded shoes are going to give you fits. Same goes the other way around.

    • I’m sure that is a factor, but I’m still curious which version is safer. You can be “used to” wearing a Victorian corset everyday, but it doesn’t make it good for you.

  4. Mike says:

    I bought a pair of Vibram KSO’s this last spring, and they are hands-down the best investment I have ever made for my feet. If it weren’t for Minnesota’s weather, they’d be the only thing I ever wore on my feet. They’re unbelievably comfortable, my feet feel better after wearing them (as opposed to normal shoes), and I just feel much more light on my feet. I also wear them to the gym so I don’t have to put them away over the winter. My advice get a pair of Vibram’s, especially if you’re looking to strengthen the muscles in your feet. Plus, since you’re traveling, they are really easy to pack up. If you can, and haven’t yet, find a place that sells them and try a pair on first. They are quite a different animal from normal shoes. But I think once you try some on, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. I have yet to find a person that has a pair of Vibram’s and doesn’t like them.

    • I am continually amazed by the strength of the recommendations for Vibram’s. People truly seem to love them. I don’t think I am going to wear them for days of walking 15-20 miles (I want more ankle cushioning for that) but I would consider them for days of bopping around town. Might be a good way to help strengthen my feet without overdoing it.

  5. I’m definitely interested in which way you go, man. This is good stuff. One additional thing to consider is how quickly the footwear you choose can dry out. Nothing worse than putting on wet/cold shoes in the morning and having to walk 20+ miles in them. Plus, quick drying will reduce your hiker smell quite a bit :-)

    • That is a REALLY good point. I am used to sucking it up and dealing with wet shoes while camping, but that is not a 15-20 mile daily walk nor such long-term repeated use. Rainy days will be interesting.

  6. Beth says:

    This is really fascinating stuff.

    You and I tend to give different weight to personal experience. But if it were me, I would start carefully crafting my own experiments with both options now, and see how my body seems to react. If there’s no distinct scientific conclusion either way, then either a) we just haven’t figured it out yet or b) it depends on the person (eg my foot may not have the same needs as yours, especially after your injury). Either way, all you have left to learn from is your own body. So why wait until you start the 7000 mile walk? I would probably invest in a pair of each and devise a way to test them out. You know how to do that; you know you can’t switch every day or just jump into one or the other suddenly.

    I’d also do some reading up on injuries in general. I have no idea what the answer to this would be, but one question I’d have is “what if I get an injury along the way?” You’re bound to pull a muscle or something at some point. I could imagine the best response going either way: perhaps a more supportive shoe would help support your foot and keep you from intensifying the injury, or perhaps the pseudo-barefoot option would force you to do only and exactly the things that will not increase your injury. You can’t know in advance what kind of injury you might get, but I’d want to investigate the range of possibilities so I could consider my options….perhaps it would lead to me bringing one pair of each, knowing that I might need to switch sometimes depending on conditions.

    And either way, you’re going to have to replace them as you go, so I’d probably find a type I love and make sure I could order them online and have them shipped somewhere as I travel.

    • This is a gold-star battery of suggestions, Beth. Thank you! The idea of doing some personal experiments is growing on me. The idea of having two pairs of shoes along, even though it is extra weight, is also gaining appeal. I especially like the idea of wearing sandals on rainy days to keep my normal shoes dry – cf. Nate’s comment above :)

  7. Beth says:

    One other thought: I’d also investigate conditions where you are going. Having been to the rainforest, there are a lot of plants, not to mention animals, that are spiked/thorned/pokey and poisonous. So perhaps there are sections of the walk where you would want some more protection for your feet, especially if you will be off-roading it.

    • That makes sense if I’m strongly considering Vibram’s. On the other hand a pair of rubber-soled canvas shoes should protect me from basic thorns as well as a pair of athletic shoes.

      (I will also strongly consider getting pair of the native footwear when in jungle areas, whatever that turns out to be.)

  8. I’d wear tennies or hiking boots with decent padding when walking on pavement and moccasins when on dry dirt. I used to go through a $5 pair of Minnetonka moccasins every summer when I was a kid and liked them a lot better than real shoes!

    Remember, you’re mostly not going to be running, and our knees and ankles aren’t evolved for walking on pavement endlessly either. For that matter, a lot of these issues come up from walking heel-toe instead of on the balls of your feet, which is a lot easier on irregular terrain in moccasins anyway.

    • What Kira said. You’ll want something on your feet that protects you while you walk and aids in your stamina-running shoes, light hiking boots, whatever. Sandals? No. Wimpy canvas shoes? Also no. Moccasins are probably a great choice for light walking off pavement.

    • ….and my Chinese Medicine doctor friend I’m staying with just told me to stop walking on the balls of my feet and walk heel-to-toe. Darnit alternative medicine people, can’t you get your act together and all give the same advice?!

      Seriously though, good point about pavement Kira. Thank you. Moccasins have a huge appeal to me for off-road.

      • Sayer says:

        Walk on natural surfaces as much as you can. It is a delight to your senses.
        The way I walk is a sort of hybrid and depends upon terrain, speed and stealth:

        Balls of your feet distribute impacts, so for faster harder walking / jogging.

        Heel Impact is always out, too many problems with transferring shock up. But “normal Shoes” teach us to walk that way.

        If you walk with the heel touching first let your foot roll down it’s whole length. Light impact on the heel and roll through the whole foot ending with a push from your toes. You can do this unshod or with very flexible soled shoes like moccasins. Very low energy and extremely low impact. Distributes weight and can be seen in the shallow footprints you leave behind. I do this when I’m carrying a pack.

        • Here is a question I have for you about your gait.

          You describe the heel-to-ball step as “If you walk with the heel touching first let your foot roll down it’s whole length. Light impact on the heel and roll through the whole foot ending with a push from your toes.” Let me try to ask something really nitpicky.

          Do you transfer the weight from the heel of the foot to the ball of the foot as such, that is, along the inside of the foot?

          Or do you transfer the weight from the heel ultimately to the outside of the front of the foot, more on a diagonal across the foot?

          Does this question make sense?

  9. Mockingbird says:

    I’ll side with the doctor one this one. “Wear some fucking shoes.” <3 When it comes to 7k miles you won't have very many comforts at all… might as well have some comfy shoes.

  10. I love your surgeon. LOL!

    I’m with Beth – don’t ask what we think (wait, too late for that), start experimenting. Your feet and your back will (and ankles and knees and hips) will tell you what to do.

    And as Beth said, if you do go with “some fucking shoes,” consider how long they will last and whether/how you can replace them.

    One other thought: Your feet are an important connection to the earth, and that connection is important to you. What solution enhances that? And (not but) “if you take care of your feet, they’ll take care of you.”

    • I love your final question here Susan. This is something no one else asked! Moccasins would be by far my best answer to that. I love wearing moccasins when walking outside because I can feel the land under my foot. Thank you.

  11. Soliwo says:

    Different shoes for different purposes. Do not think you will manage with just one pair. Any type of shoe will be both supporting and restricting in some way. It is key to switch shoes (which should all be run-in). Walk barefoot on the beach, were light shoes on asphalt and forest roads and tougher shoes on the mountain side. So bring at least one extra pair of shoes. Sandals are usually a good choice as a second pair, allowing more more in, and being more flexible if your feet swell up. As you have stated that your injured foot tends to swell, make sure you accommodate for this.

    Remember, you can always try to send some luggage forwards. Check how long post-offices will keep send packages.

    • Thank you Janneke. I have been avoiding the idea of taking multiple pairs with me (though I know I will need to replace them as I go). It is extra weight to carry in my pack. But I’m starting to get more and more convinced I should have at least 1 extra pair. Thank you!

  12. Another thing to keep in mind is that you won’t be in one set of shoes the whole way, and you’ll need to buy local as you go. Also you shoes say a good bit about your economic status, both to potential employers (you’re thinking of doing some local jobs along the way, right?) and potential muggers. The walk across the States will probably wear out one or two pairs, and you’ll need to get new ones in Texas or Mexico anyway. You could always get cheap shoes and sports insoles; I’ve been doing that for a few years. Don’t remember the brand, but I got some insoles at Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis that cost about $45 and they’ve made some otherwise really uncomfortable shoes great since then.

      • Had to go check the label… looks like they’re “superfeet”. They seem to be high absorption rubber on top of a hard plastic heel and arch piece. I got them last time I was back in the States and had to take some work through ManPower that had me working a stand in a parking lot for 6-8 hour shifts, but they’ve held up since then for almost 3 years of travel and hardly show the wear.

    • I’m not sure I’ll need to buy local. I’ll definitely need to replace shoes as I go, but many of the brands here in US also market to much of Latin America, or there is ordering online. I can stay a few weeks in a city along the way to wait for them if need be. Though, if I go with thin-soled shoes, there’s no need to special order anything – I can buy a cheap pair locally indeed.

      Thanks for the thoughtful replies Kira! So happy you are a reader here!

  13. Everyone’s feet are different. I can only tell you what I’ve gone through by my own experience. I cannot go barefoot anymore because I am diabetic and I have to protect myself from getting life-threatening infections. Furthermore, my feet swell up after five to ten miles of walking per day. I wear about five different kinds of shoes for different kinds of activities to prevent injury and infection. One for walking, your typical thick soled, yet more breathable athletic shoe made for diabetics. One for standing for long hours in, another for general use. One for lounging. You will choose several different shoes, I am assuming, not just for health, but for terrain.

    I am sure whatever decision you make will be a well informed one. I don’t even know if telling you experience is really a recommendation worthy of sharing. At this point, I just want to participate in the conversation! ;-P

    • I really don’t think I can choose several different shoes – backpack space (and weight) is at a premium. It really needs to be one excellent pair of shoes and, at most, one backup/secondary pair.

  14. McDougall actually spoke to my medical school class awhile back. I haven’t read the book yet, but he recommended working your way down to a five-fingers (or the like) by first wearing shoes with increasingly smaller heel/toe padding ratios. 9mm, then 6mm, then 3mm, etc.

    • Matt that is awesome! Thank you. I’m very curious, how does your medical school class – and the faculty – feel about his theory? Are people there sold on the idea that thinner soles or Vibrams are safer, or is there a lot of skepticism?

  15. Mike says:

    dude, seriously, wear some shoes. I cook professionally in a kitchen all day, sometimes for 16 hour shifts. A good pair of shoes can make all the difference in the world. I will destroy a cheap pair of work shoes or work boots in 1 month. Good quality work boots allow me to stand on my feet all day, and still be able to move after work. When someone asked Superfly Jimmy Snuka if there was anything he would have done differently in his life, he said “I would have worn shoes.”

  16. I say both.

    Of all the extras you’ll want to carry or not carry, I think the shoes are very important. I say take both. There’s terrain you’ll want each for.

    • That seems to be the growing consensus. It doesn’t really answer the question of which one is better for your foot though. I mean there are conditions where you’d want stiff, steel-toed work boots or thigh-high rubber waders, but neither is optimal for foot health. I’m curious Urban, in all your years of traveling and adventuring, do you have a gut feeling about which kind of shoe – supportive or thin-soled – does the most for foot health?

  17. I think it’s short sighted and kind of narrow minded for these barefoot advocates to say “Well, people in other countries run around without these shoes and they are just fine”. I think there are a lot of variables to consider with your average American Joe.

    I think sports injuries have increased because 1)sports participants have increased 2)REPORTING of injuries as being sports related has increased and 3) sports have become more extreme and competitive.

    I think if you’ve been an athlete all your life, you probably don’t need the support that a more “advanced” running shoe provides. And that has to do with how you were raised. If you became an “athlete” as an adult, after a regular old American life, you probably DO need the more supportive shoe and you probably WILL hurt yourself without proper support.

    I personally use a super supportive/cushioned shoe because when I started running at 34, my body was in revolt. I had NEVER done any serious hard work like that before in my life. My friend Josh has been an athlete his whole life. He uses those barefoot shoes sometimes and loves em.

    I think it depends on the persons and the variables in their lives, basically.

    • Hi Ive, thanks for the detailed response.

      The number of sports participants is controlled for in the time-trend analysis because it looks at percentage of injuries, not sheer number. But your other points are well taken and are indeed major holes in the time-trend approach.

      With your idea – that people who are not trained athletes need the extra support of a cushioned shoe – do you think that time and conditioning can allow someone to transition away from the supportive shoe? Why or why not?

    • Everything you’ve said on the different variables is the first thing I thought of when reading about the study results. But does these new considerations answer the question of which is better? I couldn’t say. All I know is that I lean toward less is more.

      • Sayer says:

        Used to run constantly. I have been in and worked around the military most of my life. Unknown to me at the time, but perfectly clear in hindsight, shoes and boots almost cost me my right foot and did have me in a chair for years. They are NOT what nature intended. I began going unshod when I was over 50 years old. Kept a pedometer with me the first few months and after I was doing at least 5 miles daily, stopped. I walk bare everywhere I can, at most I carry a pair of Fivefinger classics. Since I still work for the Federal Gov. those are my at work shoes. Most places I shop at and eat accommodate and actually delight in my bare feet.

        Most importantly I allowed my body to heal itself and to maintain that health. I am still overweight from my time in the chair and a failed thyroid, but I’ve lost over a hundred pounds (from over 350 to under 250). I do occasionally jog and have even run with my unit at work on a slow charity run. Age may slow the process, but the process will take the shape nature intends if you give it a chance.

        Oh, and of course I thought my Doctor was nutz when she recommended this “take your shoes off and let your body do what it is supposed to “. She was absolutely right.

        • Love the work shoes ^_^

          I think living where its a fairly warm climate year round helps. Wouldn’t want to be barefoot or even in the five fingers in the snow. *Buurrrr*

  18. Long time follower, First time responder, but love your blogs.

    I do not have any personal experience, but my younger brother injured his ankles more than 25 years ago. (He fell off a roof while on a jobsite roofing.) All these years since then, he has worn good work boots with ankle support while working the whole time, stayed active and kept his weight down to prevent any further injuries, though he has been in much pain.

    Due to the fact that you have injured your ankle and it still swells up, I think you should take into consideration that you may never be able to wear foot condoms, or shoes without good support. For a 7K mile trip, your shoes will be the most important investment you make.

    In any case, as many others have pointed out, you will need to experiment to find out what your feet want and need…

    Keep up the good work.


    • Thanks so much for this response Faelind. And I’m glad you’re a regular reader!

      I’m sorry to hear about your brother’s injuries, and glad he can still work. You raise an excellent point here…. it is quite possible that whatever’s best for a “normal” foot does not apply for me. Thank you for pointing it out!

  19. I know I am a little late in responding here, so you may have very well already made your decision.

    I know I’d like to try out thin canvas, but for certain would not use them in the winter months. There is some very obvious risk with that.

    So, naturally if the weather is cold for whatever reason, thin canvas may not be your best bet.

    One obvious benefit is that you’d be carrying less weight on your journey with thin canvas, and that they perform better in wet and do dry faster.

    One question I have is if they wear out at the same rate? Would it matter how they are used? Do thin canvas out perform in rugged uneven ground? I know that when it comes to climbing thin canvas is better, do you plan on doing a lot of climbing on your journey? If, and when, your footwear wears out. Can you get them replaced wear you are? You can easily pack thin canvas replacement shoes, while regular shoes may pose a problem.

    I don’t know which is better and I hope you get what ends up best.

    • Good points and good questions Rua. Best answers I have: I don’t expect to be in many wintry areas, and will get boots if I do; and I’m sure my shoes will wear out many times, so I plan on replacing them along the way.

  20. Sayer says:

    Good question Drew. My answer is clear. I’ve been barefoot for a few years at the recommendation of a foot specialist and I have parked my wheelchair, and no longer use a cane. I was wearing shoes after many foot surgeries, one in which I nearly lost my foot. The VA gave me a chair and told me to spend the rest of my life in it. I did for several years. Then I was having more and more problems as a result, went to a specialist outside of the VA system. She recommended I go barefoot or use Fivefingers. Her point was simple: “Every morning you awaken, your feet delight and look forward to exercise and you immediately wrap them is a cast. A day of walking around with no movement and no wonder your feet cramp and can’t support your weight when you do ask them to.” My feet and lower legs have never been stronger. Those few occasions where I do consent to wearing “Normal Shoes” my feet are in pain for days. Whether your inclination is towards evolution or intell design, the truth is, our feet were not meant to be shod.

  21. Sayer says:

    I just read a few more of the responses and all seem to be typical of people who have “grown up” thinking shoes are required. I’ll offer a few more insights I’ve gleaned through my few years unshod.

    It does take time to let your feet heal, you’ve spent your life getting them in this condition.
    Your legs and lower back will also re-align (all good things).
    Your stamina and endurance will increase, but your speed may suffer because you’ll be seeing and feeling more along the way.
    You will enjoy contact with the Earth like never before. This alone is a source of pleasure and joy for me.
    You will see things differently, my perspective changes as I actually view the ground, instead of taking for granted everything “down there” can just be trod over.
    Any foot fungus or smelliness you may have had, shall be gone, you will remove the incubator. Feet love fresh air and sunshine and especially rain (yup, they are waterproof).
    Before long the heat and cold will not be a bother. It takes more than a few weeks. But if you just do it, before long you just don’t notice it anymore.
    Oh yeah, the huge nasty callouses I used to have…. ALL Gone, thick supple pads for soles of my feet. Like a dogs pads.
    Occasionally a scrape or scratch, but in the open air they heal fast. Happened more at first than lately. You’ve got my e-mail, I’m passionate about this and would not mind answering any question you have about barefooting.

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