Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Privilege of Pavement

A comment I hear regularly from shoe-wearing runners and doctors who are cautious of going barefoot is this: “Feet may be made for going bare on natural terrain but not on modern surfaces.” I have to tell you, this is just another misconception to add to the long list of misconceptions about the human foot and footwear. Let me give three reasons why I think this is so.

Rickshaw runners enjoy a modern surface
First: I don’t think much of the earth is covered with the soft, manicured grasslands that most people must envision when they say “natural terrain.” It seems to me that the ground is generally hard and rocky in most undeveloped places where people live. Plus, I don’t think our ancestors really spent much time walking or running through “natural terrain.” Cities and villages are nearly as old as humanity itself and those villages are connected by roads (or at least well-worn paths) which – again – are hard and rocky. There are plenty of examples of primitive peoples living today much as their ancestors did for thousands of years. In parts of Asia and Africa, for example, rickshaws are still pulled by barefoot workers on cobblestone roads, a tradition that goes back for millennia.

Second: My friend Daniel Lieberman at Harvard (the other barefoot professor) has demonstrated in his research that impact forces on the body are virtually zero when running barefoot, even on the hardest man-made surfaces like steel. Thus, the body’s shock-absorption mechanisms are perfectly capable of handling the hardest of terrains. By the way, impact forces are not zero when running on hard surfaces in shoes.

Third: In my personal experience I find pavement and concrete the most enjoyable surfaces to walk and run on. I began running barefoot in 2006 because I was sustaining twisted ankles from trail running in shoes. I’ve not injured my ankles once since I switched to barefoot, but I find myself doing more road running these days. Why? Because it just feels better and it takes less concentration than navigating rocks and roots on a trail (yes, I am lazy).

Yesterday I walked through a wild field that was littered with thorns and was almost undoable even for my tough soles. Wow, it never felt so good when I reached the edge of that field and stepped onto pavement! Walking through “natural terrain” can be extremely unpleasant and I consider it a privilege to live in a time when smooth, paved roads and sidewalks are available.

Don’t be afraid of pavement. Take off your shoes and go.


  1. The argument I often get when I mention I run barefoot is almost the opposite, the lack of variation that is negative on the feet. Repetitive stress on the feet due to too flat surfaces for long distances.
    What's your take on that?

  2. Projektbarfota: One of the "problems" with running in general is that it is too repetitive. And yes, running on roads is even more repetitive than running on trails, so running on trails is probably better exercise for the feet and body. I like what Erwan Le Corr does at MovNat and I'm trying to incorporate his philosophy more.

  3. Projektbarfota brings up a good point so I'm adding this 'disclaimer' to the post. Running on pavement is highly repetitive and the repetitive banging of the feet on pavement is likely a major cause of 'top-of-the-foot pain' (metarsalgia, probably stress fractures in the metatarsals). To help avoid this, spice it up; don't run exclusively on pavement for mile after mile after mile in the same gait pattern and make sure you run with proper form. However, I still think our biggest problem is weak feet from years of shoe use; those rickshaw runners don't seem to have a problem on pavement.

  4. One thing to keep in mind is that modern paved surfaces are refined composites of natural rock materials and other natural binders. Instead of the street being one flat rock, it's a ground-down, flattened composite material made of that rock. While created by man, it's created of natural materials.

  5. I had a similar experience this week. It's finally warm enough here in the great damp NorthWest to venture out unshod...however the sidewalks in my neighborhood are a sort of aggregate so it takes a few walks to wake my feet up and remind them what's what...it's amazing how nice a section of smooth new blacktop can feel after a mile or so of pebbled aggregate!

  6. Daniel wrote: "Running on pavement is highly repetitive and the repetitive banging of the feet on pavement is likely a major cause of 'top-of-the-foot pain'".

    The thing is, folks shouldn't be doing any "banging" at all. If you are "banging", you are doing it wrote. And if you are "jogging", you are also doing it wrong--there should not be any "jogs". It should be "running".

    Ken Bob keeps stressing that we should be "placing" our feet down, not "banging" them. Even the words we use can have an "impact". :-)

  7. Interresting comments!
    Like ahcuah says, you shall not jog/bang or do anything like that when running. I myself love to run on smooth pavements!
    My comment was mereley an argument I hear sometimes when the I bring up the fact that our feet are meant to be used bare.
    When I explain that the world probably didn't were dressed like a golf green, they shift focus from "too harsh manmade material" to "too flat and repetitive"

    Many barefoot runners run marathons in the streets so I guess it shouldn't be a problem, done right.

    //Martin "Project Barefoot", from Sweden

  8. For a number of years I tried to run barefoot regularly on "natural surfaces." I always gave it up because I'd get hurt by stepping on sticks or acorns. (Man, I hate acorns!)

    Then I started running barefoot on paved streets and roads. What a difference! It felt FANTASTIC!

    Even more surprising to me, I discovered that concrete, while a very harsh and abusive surface to run on in shoes, is a wonderful surface to run on barefoot. Now, when I have the option to run on a good smooth concrete sidewalk or the asphalt road on one side, I choose the concrete.

    (Yes, I know it's counter-intuitive. But if you actually run barefoot on asphalt, concrete, or "natural surfaces" I think you'll find the asphalt and concrete are far more pleasant than the grass and trails.)

  9. I agree with Daniel and some of the comments here. Pavement is just as "natural" as any other surface, and human feet were designed to handle it. I used to run 3 miles barefoot on asphalt pavement every morning. I did it for many years, but had to stop running due to a chronic knee problem (nothing to do with being barefoot, but as a result of an old injury in taekwondo and several surgeries). Anyway, I loved it, and the bottoms of my feet got very thick and tough, probably the best shape my feet have ever been in during that time. Now I hike a lot, which also keeps my feet tough.

    One thing I've learned from hiking on various terrains is that feet eventually adjust to whatever surface with which they come in contact, but getting used to one type of surface (such a gravel) doesn't necessarily mean they can handle *any* type of surface, especially where the texture is quite different (such as asphalt). My goal has always been for my feet to be able to handle any surface, so I think regularly alternating surfaces is probably the best way to do this. Smooth pavement is just another variation in surface to which feet will naturally adjust.

  10. "Plus, I don’t think our ancestors really spent much time walking or running through “natural terrain.""

    Wild speculation. You should look into the research of Steven Robbins, MD, who has studied said subject:


    Also, to the above commenter that said the surface is natural because it's made of natural materials. If you follow this logic, then a Snickers bar is a natural food, because at some level it is made of natural food ingredients.

  11. Matt, I am familiar with Robbins. Indeed, for two years I worked down the street from him in Montreal. Honestly though I have mixed feelings about his research and public statements. As for pavement being made from natural materials I agree with you; EVERYTHING is ultimately made from natural materials.

  12. One of the first things I discovered when I began going barefoot around the city was that pavement wasn't as flat and uniformly smooth as I had assumed. I became aware of all the different materials, surface variations, undulations, and the way one navigates curbs, a multitude of objects, and other people in the street. You find that you're not pounding the pavement--as before--but doing a little dance out there.

  13. Professor Howell's arguments are very plausible. It's not only possible, but healthy to go barefoot on any surfaces.
    A good example from Europe are children living on farms in the mountains during the 19th century. As a result of poverty or parsimony of their parents they had to go barefoot at least half of the year. In areas with mild climates, it was even common for children growing up without any shoes.
    No one would have thought that this could be unhealthy. Hard surfaces and stony paths were not considered dangerous to bare feet, but as a challenge. The soles just had to be hardened. The children had plenty of time for it, because every day they went barefoot from the lonely farms to school. Often overcame her bare feet 2 or 3 miles on gravel, spiny forest floor and paved roads. This exercise did not harm their feet at all. On the contrary, it was extremely healthy.
    This good example encouraged me to trust the strength of my feet and protect them nowhere. In German cities and villages, there is no place where it would be impossible or unhealthy to go barefoot.
    For about 20 years I go barefoot in public. Since last summer, I try to live completely without shoes, except when working. I go barefoot everywhere, but mostly in the city. I especially like going barefoot on rough, hard asphalt. I could go for hours with my bare feet through the city, feel the different surfaces and collect wonderful impressions and dirt on my soles. I have very healthy and happy feet.

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