Is it okay to use minimalist footwear on modern surfaces...?

Answered on September 12, 2014
Created February 18, 2010 at 2:46 AM

I've got a pair of Vibram Five Fingers Sprints. I love them. I use them hiking in dirt and sprinting in the grass fields near my house. Today I was out running (in normal running sneakers) and a man (very likely 50 lbs heavier than me, both in strength and stature) bounced past me in a pair of Vibram KSOs! We were running on a lengthy concrete path and it was a rather unpopulated portion of the path so I presume that he wasn't doing "sprints." He was likely out for a reasonably lengthy run.

So here's my question:

If being barefoot is natural, and Vibrams (plus other minimalist footwear) mimic the natural movement of the foot, are we sure it is okay to wear them (or be barefoot) on non-natural surfaces?

I can understand wearing minimalist footwear on grass or dirt or sand; but on concrete? Hardwood? Asphalt? Surely the modern and harsh nature of the modern surfaces counteracts the natural strength of the foot in some way... Or not? What say ye?



on February 18, 2010
at 05:04 PM

It's a common misconception that the world that ancient mankind ran around on was completely covered in soft squishy grass.



on February 18, 2010
at 05:24 AM

Can't be any worse than our ancestors running on boulders and rocks...

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on February 18, 2010
at 08:25 AM

I think Concrete/modern roads have natural equivalents. Just take a look at a rocky trail/packed dirt. It shouldn't matter much where you would run. It's logical though that you are noticing the hard surface runs if you are just starting to walk/run barefoot since the impact is high and you are probably not fully used to the way of walking barefoot.

When you are, there are major benefits, more even than walking on grass, since the impact on hard surfaces is much more than the soft surfaces. And the damage to your knees/spine/legs is way less when running barefoot.

So i'd say that, especially when you are running on modern roads, go barefoot!

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on February 19, 2010
at 06:15 PM

Thanks everyone!

Don Matesz in a recent blogpost links to a very interesting study that suggests that my concerns are unfounded. The study has a website and the website has a FAQ page. One of the frequently asked questions was about modern surfaces:

What about surface hardness? Our ancestors didn???t run on pavement.

A common perception is that running on hard surfaces causes injuries, but runners typically adjust leg stiffness so they experience the similar impact forces on soft and hard surfaces. Further, forefoot and some midfoot strikers hit the ground in a way that generates almost no collision forces even on hard surfaces like steel. You can run barefoot and heel strike on a soft beach or lawn, but most natural surfaces are much harder and rougher. With proper forefoot or midfoot strike form, running on hard, rough surfaces can be comfortable and safe.

The whole study can be found here: Biomechanics of Foot Strikes & Applications to Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear

I'm grateful to everyone who answered this question and referenced the following:

  1. our feet are able to adjust to the modern surface by changing from a heel-strike to a forefoot or midfoot strike
  2. it is possible that barefoot or minimalist footwear is the better, safer way to run on modern surfaces
  3. solid surfaces may be safer than soft, grassy surfaces because the ground is less uneven
  4. transitioning to barefoot or minimalist running on hard surfaces should be done gradually

I've answered the question myself so that the link to the study doesn't get lost in the light blue comments.



on February 18, 2010
at 07:17 AM

I wear almost no other type of shoes. Usually 10 or so hours a day. Mostly hard surfaces. Packed dirt, clay, and game or rocky trails are not soft either. Cavemen never ran around on grass lawn like surfaces. Ever ran in a real field? Non-visible ankle breaking holes. Give me a trail any day!

I wear boots during the nasty (real nasty) outdoor adventures, but only because I dont want to thrash my VFF or constantly maintain them. Cant afford a new pair every month right now.

The first time you run wrong barefoot or in VFF on a hard surface, you'll remember it! Probably wont happen again ;)


on February 18, 2010
at 05:36 AM

Yes, I was wondering this myself for a while!

If you watch this video (made by the scientific journal Nature): The Barefoot Professor http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jrnj-7YKZE

You will see one of the main benefits of barefoot running is essentially you are forced to run toe to heel (as opposed to heel to toe) and this is essentially creates a lower-impact higher up thge chain in your ankles, knees and hips.

So my thoughts are it is probably better to always run on softer surfaces like grass, dirt and sand as opposed to modern roads/concrete, etc however if you do run on hard surfaces then barefoot is better anyway due to reduced impact! Even our 'ideal' models of humans from hunter-gatherer cultures do suffer joint wear & tear (no amount of good diet or exercise can prevent aging) so you want to minimise wear & tear whilst still getting the health benefits of physical activity

Thats why short bursts of sprinting on grass or sand is probably the single most effective workout-IMO-that you can do!


on February 18, 2010
at 04:34 PM

I don't think there is good research on this subject. We do know that the human foot provides more cushioning than any shoe, so if you are forced to run on hard surfaces you are best off barefoot/minimal.

I used to assume that concrete must be bad until I read that Barefoot Ted and other experienced barefoot runners think it is perfectly fine to run on concrete. We adjust our leg stiffness based on the surface hardness (when barefoot), so it is possible there is nothing wrong with this. The harder the surface, the more efficiently we can run because a softer surface absorbs some of our energy. This may be why some barefoot runners like hard surfaces independently of how it effect the body in the long-term. A softer but more variable surface is less predictable and could put more instantaneous stress on muscles and joints. This could be good or bad depending on how you are looking at things.

If you want paleo re-enactment, it seems like our ancestors would have very rarely ran across a surface as hard as concrete. Asphalt is significantly less hard. A surface made by nature would of course be much more paleo.

Barefoot Ted recommends learning proper form on concrete and this seems like a good idea to me. When the learning is over you may want to move onto other surfaces, if nothing else for a more stimulating run. I run on the grass next to the sidewalks and that is a lot of fun. Moving around trees and plants, hurdling over the concrete, and dodging dog poo. Seems more paleo to me.


on February 18, 2010
at 05:07 PM

After I busted up my knees running in regular shoes a while ago, I have switched to running in Vibram Five Fingers or barefoot, and I've never looked back.

Rigid, heavily padded shoes, prevent our body from taking full advantage of the plethora of muscles, tendons, bones, and nerves in our feet. All of those mechanisms are naturally designed to facilitate running.

As a species, we wear shoes because our parents forced us to wear shoes.



on February 18, 2010
at 03:30 AM

Impact forces of your feet on hard surfaces would not be that much different from "soft" surfaces. How much "give" does dirt really have? Anyway, your elastic tendons and muscles in your feet and legs are good at absorbing shocks and distributing stresses when they are allowed to.


on February 18, 2010
at 05:26 AM

Acton is correct, but only once your feet have developed the strength that they've likely lost from wearing running shoes. If you're new to VFF I'd suggest short walks on grass or dirt. If you're running there is a very big difference between the impact on concrete/asphalt and that on dirt.

edited for clarity.


on February 18, 2010
at 03:11 AM

I wear mine 8-10 hours a day, 3 days a week average in the summer. No problems unless I go far more hours than that. Can't stand to run concrete/hard surfaces in them, so I stick to trails. But I can buy into your premise, but getting out of shoes often is likely strengthening to your feet/ankles/legs hard surface or not!

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