Minimalist Shoes, Barefoot Running, and Metatarsal Stress Fractures

by Danny Dreyer.

Running barefoot will strengthen the intrinsic muscles of your feet, making them more stable. And, it may give you a feeling of running differently. But, it won’t somehow automatically undo all your worst movement habits or change them for the better.

Pete Larson, the Runblogger, has recently posted a comment on the rash of metatarsal stress fractures occurring among barefoot and minimalist shoe runners and he theorizes that most of them occur in the mid to late part of the support stance when running.

From my own experience, I agree with him. I hardly ever run barefoot unless it’s on a track where I know there won’t be anything to hurt my feet. Instead, I run in minimalist shoes once or twice a week and run in racing flats for the rest of my weekly runs.

When I run barefoot or in minimalist shoes I notice a change in how my feet feel. Because I have no shoes providing protection and structure to my feet, I find that I hold a bit more tension in the intrinsic muscles of my feet. My body is looking for a sense of stability in this shoeless mode, so my natural tendency is to get my feet to create that stability I’m used to feeling in shoes. I can feel the tension in my feet the most when I roll onto the balls of my feet and lift off for my next stride. Because of this, I’ve had to train myself to relax my lower legs and resist a tendency to hold tension in my feet and toe off. As a result, I’ve had to pay special attention to relaxing my lower legs and to relying on my forward fall for most of my propulsion needs.

From the “body logic” I’ve been taught in t’ai chi, the smallest muscles and bones of my feet  have no business acting to support my full body weight or propel me forward as I run. The job of support should fall to the largest bones (the femurs, pelvis and spine) and the job of propulsion should fall to the strongest muscles (the core muscles) assisted by the pull of gravity, and not to the relatively small bones and muscles in my feet. Placing my full weight onto these small bones and muscles and then increasing that amount by toeing off is asking for trouble in the form of possible stress fractures. No thanks. I’ll just pick up my feet instead of pushing off and run the risk of being sidelined.

Danny Dreyer is the founder of ChiRunning. This essay originally appeared on ChiRunning.

6 Responses to “Minimalist Shoes, Barefoot Running, and Metatarsal Stress Fractures”

  1. This is interesting, and I’ve noticed the same as you Danny, when running barefoot. Although I agree that you don’t want to rely on the small muscles and ligaments of our feet to support us, I look at it from the perspective that if I’m running relaxed (all over, not just my feet) then my feet will land softly, and my support will still come from the big bones and muscles. So, running barefoot makes me a better runner – it forces me to recognize my weaknesses and keeps me relaxed. In a shoe, although I may not feel the tight foot intrinsic muscles when I’m not relaxed, they’re there, just supported by the shoe. So if I’m running barefoot I have to be 100% aware and present running, or my feet will feet tense, as will other areas of my body. Interestingly enough, the first time I wore Vibram FF I felt like I was developing a 5th met-head stress fracture – had to stop running after 30mins due to excruciating pain in that area. After this happened a second time to me, I stopped wearing them, but am fine barefoot. Minimalist shoes can cause the same body “un-awareness” as barefoot – perhaps more so since your body thinks you’ve got more protection and support than it really has.

    • MarkC says:

      Steve, Danny,
      Nice article and reply. one really simple drill to help learn foot contral/stability and identify weakness is to run in place slowly,land on ball of foot, and not let heel touch. Basically hopping from one foot to another. Do this 10 times. Can you “stick the landing” or does your foot collapse?
      If you “stick the landing” you are good.

  2. YunL says:

    Pushing off with ones toes is a big mistake that many people make. However if you do it while going barefoot, you will develop blisters on your toes quickly. Over-striding, another typical running form issue that can lead to many different injuries, also causes blisters quickly if running barefoot. This one reason of why barefoot running is a better tool for learning proper running form. It uses the weaker links such as the skin of your feet to protect the rest of your legs and feet.

    On the other hand, running in minimal shoes takes away the feedback you get from the skin on the bottom of your feet. Without that line of defense, the next line of defense is the small bones, tendons, and muscle of your feet, which can take a beating if the running form is not good.

    I’ve heard someone describe running in Vibram 5 fingers as “running without the barefoot feedback, and without the thick-soled shoe’s protection”. Vibram shoes can provide some protection to the skin, but protecting your bones/muscles/tendons depends on you knowing the proper running form. If you haven’t developed proper running form, running in something like Vibram could actually be the worst of both worlds.

    • MarkC says:


      amazing how when folks just pause to think that they figure our barefoot is the best teacher….you self regulate nd the discomfort does not allow any progression into structural injury. just need to listen to that pain and learn from it.

      Dr. Mark

  3. Charlene says:

    I think this is really important to remember: “But, it won’t somehow automatically undo all your worst movement habits or change them for the better.”

    A lot of people just think that it will be ok instantly after changing the shoes. It won’t be and you need patience to get familiar with new shoes.


  4. alan says:

    Hi, Dr Danny, i have been tansitioning to minimalist shoe and BFR for 2 months. I ran with minimalist foot shoe and do BFR in between. Run run up to 90 minutes with minimalist shoe and 30 minutes for BFR. Initially, i felt lower calf soreness, but it has not been a problem now. However, recently, my left foot just above heel, behind & beside the ankle is pain when press, run and walk. I suspect is the “calcaneus” bone (from the diagram )fracture. If not, what could cause the pain? What can do beside RICE, and how long does it take to heal ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *