How much Shoe can you Tolerate? Are you Blessed enough to Run Pain- or Injury-Free in Shoes?

A visual depiction and discussion of how running without pain or injury correlates to distance, and how one’s ability to run distance without pain in different shoes can make you a blessed runner biomechanically or a cursed runner.

Today, I want to talk about the spectrum of runners as it pertains to the ability to run distances in shoes of varying sorts as mapped against one’s tendency to experience pain or injury. Indeed, that is exactly what is mapped in the two graphs above — albeit somewhat tongue in cheek.

It is my opinion that the majority of human beings can run only a small distance in modern running shoes and not experience pain or injury. Ramp up the distance, and this majority will soon be in pain and experience a great occurrence of injury. I’d even go so far as to say that many people — a silent majority — have forsworn running because they associate it with pain.

Let me recap the gist of what I’m mapping in the graph

  • The amount of shoe directly affects one’s sensation of impact as well as the proprioceptive ability of the foot.
  • As impact forces are absorbed by the shoe (rather than the foot) and ground-feedback is subdued, a runner’s incentive to land gently is reduced (minimizing impact being perhaps the key to natural running).

Basically, the more shoe you add to the foot, the less you monitor impact forces on the body. These changes ultimately manifest themselves as pain or injury — moreso as you increase distance.

Many minimalist or barefoot runners have already concluded something like what I’m saying here, and this post is not intended to be a slam on modern running shoes.

Okay, so why are you preaching to the choir?

I’m writing this post not because you can be a cursed runner in modern running shoes but because you can also be “cursed” in minimalist shoes like Vibram Five Fingers, too.

I am a cursed runner. Slap your typical running shoe on my foot and within a quarter of a mile my knees will start aching. I am in no way out of shape or overweight at 5’11” and 165 lbs. I’m just incapable of running gently in cushioned shoes without experiencing pain. I’m sure many of you can relate!

Unfortunately for me, it doesn’t stop there. I’m so cursed, it seems, that even in my favorite shoes of all time (you know, Vibram Five Fingers), I still find that running past a certain distance (not much further at that!), my knees start acting up. Bummer, right?

It seems that I’m so cursed that I have to be actually barefoot if I want to run more than a mile or two. Don’t get me wrong: my Vibram Five Fingers are eons better at enabling me to run gently as compared to my old, dust-gathering Nikes, but I just haven’t dialed in my form enough to run much distance in them without pain. Case in point, just the other day my knee started acting up after about a mile run (the jogging stroller probably didn’t help my form). So I took off my Vibram Five Fingers* and continued on barefoot for another mile and my knee shut up!

So for me at least, it seems that I actually need to be barefoot in order to get enough ground feedback to force me to run lightly — at least, for now. I bring up the blessed/cursed runners spectrum because I think it’s important to realize that as great as Vibram Five Fingers are, they still turn the volume down on ground feedback. And if you’re like me — really cursed — you may need to ditch your Vibrams until such a time as you’ve retrained your muscle memory, rebuilt your muscles and bones, and relearned how to land gently (Something I distinctly remember being able to do as a very barefoot kid up until the age of seven or eight).

Remember: Running shouldn’t cause you pain or injury!

Vibram Five Fingers are amazing in just how well they strike a balance between being shod and protected and getting the dynamic benefits of letting your feet be free — barefoot. That said, they do not provide the equivalent experience to being barefoot. They are the “barefoot alternative” — so if you’re new to the scene of minimalist running, consider just how blessed or just how cursed you may be and remember: running isn’t supposed to hurt!

* Mocs. Yes, I took them outdoors! Don’t tell Vibram! And no I don’t recommend doing this if you want your Mocs to last!

By Justin

Justin Owings is a deadlifting dad of three, working from Atlanta. When he's not chasing his three kids around, you'll find him trying to understand systems, risk, and human behavior.

15 replies on “How much Shoe can you Tolerate? Are you Blessed enough to Run Pain- or Injury-Free in Shoes?”

I am flat footed and 2 miles has been my top distance in running shoes. That came with a lot of pain! Switched to the Nike Free and while better I still experience pain on the inside of my knees. Then I took the plunge and tried five fingers and just ran a half marathon after training for the last 3 months alternating between the Nike Free and KSO while my feet got stronger. Yes the 13.1 was ran in the KSOs! I am so glad I can run virtually pain free now!


Thanks for running the site. I stop here often to check in on what’s happening in the vibram world/community, and I usually enjoy what you post.

However, the graphs in this article seem rather sensationalist, particularly as they don’t actually present data. I can appreciate that you and others feel strongly about the benefits of barefoot/minimalist running, but I think this presentation is pretty deceptive. I love running in vibrams, too, but if you want to make a convincing argument, please don’t make up graphs that just support what you want to say. While the personal experience you relate in the article is interesting and perhaps even insightful, the graphs are unhelpful.


I would say I’m blessed in this matter I never grew out of the midfoot strike so I was always fine running in the pillow like nike sneakers however I still prefer Barefoot>VFF>Shoes

Also thanks for the stickers you sent me Justin I placed one on the back of my motorcycle helmet it looks very cool.

Thanks for the feedback, Jeremy. Perhaps the graph needs a disclaimer to it. That said, I’d assumed that a graph that discusses runners being “blessed” or “cursed” while employing visual hyperbole (cinder block) would sort of speak for itself as being anything but scientific — they don’t present data, they don’t use numbers or quantify anything: how could someone interpret them as being scientific?

Unfortunately, and I have to take the blame for this as I wrote the article, this entire post is aimed at people who assume that running in minimalist shoes such as Vibrams will automatically fix their running form or enable you to run without injury. The graphs are much less about being blessed enough to run in thickly cushioned shoes and more about being blessed enough to run in Vibram Five Fingers out the gate without pain.

So thanks for the comment — hopefully if anyone else is confused on the purpose of this post, your feedback and my response will help clear things up!

It’s not just shoes, or the lack there of, in every case. I had years of knee pain until I learned the Chi Running form a little over a year ago. You can learn a midfoot to forefoot strike in running shoes. I started with the NB 800’s which had no heel rise and were eventually discontinued. I then went to the Nike Frees for a more minimal feel, but not until about three months ago. Changing my foot strike, even in running shoes, eliminated my knee pain.

Now I have KSO’s and Feelmax Osma’s and I love both, but am still transitioning to the lack of cushioning by still alternating with the Free’s.


Thanks for the response. I appreciate your clarification about how the graphs are using hyperbole. That’s just not my initial assumption when I look at a graph. But I think you’re spot on about needing to work on running form and not simply relying on vibrams or something else to make you run better or without pain. I love seeing more people enjoying running without being plagued by injuries, and I think your articles really help people to start thinking about how to do that.

How about trying Huaraches like the Tarumara wear if VFF’s are still too much shoe? I find I have a similar problem with VFF’s as well, start to run heavy with them and my knees start getting some pain. although I’m sure I can adjust my form to improve it (only started VFF’ing a month ago) I find huaraches make me run more lightly naturally.


I actually have some huaraches — for me, they’re very similar to VFFs in feel.

I’m going to get to VFF-running in time I know it, but it’s just gonna take some expert coaching and for that, barefoot seems to be quite a fearful master!

I think I’m going to do a mixture of Vibrams and barefoot training. Actually, no. I know I’m going to do a mixture. I think we were intended to be barefoot, it’s just freaking HOT on asphalt sometimes and gravel is annoying. I’m not going to say if I’m blessed or cursed. I just believe I have to train in the most natural way possible, get the most out of my body’s mechanics. So Vibrams are great but I’ll definitely toss in some barefoot too. I love the feeling of barefoot on grass and soil. It feels so…earthy haha.


I agree with that. I too had knee pain for years, but when I forced myself to forefoot strike in my old shoes (Brooks Infinities), it went away. The problem was that it was dreadfully hard to forefoot strike in those things, both because of the built up heel and the weight.

I believe Justin’s statement that “As impact forces are absorbed by the shoe and ground-feedback is muted, a runner’s ability to land gently is reduced,” and therefore I buy the idea that forefoot striking in minimal or no shoes yields additional benefit over forefoot striking in traditional shoes. But at least for me, the forefoot strike, regardless of the footware, seems to be a big part of the equation too.

Jeremy is quite correct that Justin’s experience doesn’t make a scientific study (n=1 is anecdote), and unfortunately graphs without units, axes and proper data are often used to deceive people into thinking there is good science behind the graphic. Read Edward Tufte’s books for lots of good (or particularly egregious) examples. However, my personal experience (so yet another anecdote) is that he’s probably right.

I was never able to run, even at school (games lessons always in trainers in a cold climate). I just collapsed in a pile of stitches, knee pain and shin splints within 200m then defaulted to a walk. I spent most of my life believing I was incapable of moving under my own steam faster than a rapid walk without using a bicycle.

After coming across the Lieberman study I reckoned I’d give barefoot a go and simply ran pain free until the soles of my feet complained. That was no real distance at all, but enough to persuade me to continue the experiment. Fortunately the VFF KSOs I ordered shortly thereafter arrived nearly 3 months late, so by that time I had already strengthened my ankles and feet through barefoot walking and had started a C25K program. With the VFFs I reverted to the horrible pounding running form that left me in pain. Take off the shoes, minimal though they are, and I run pain free once more.

So for me the VFFs are a great way to ensure the new foot and calf muscles don’t atrophy, but I’ll run barefoot. I can be n=2 in your observational study if you like, Justin? 😉 Although, as I’m still only half way through C25K, maybe I don’t count as a real runner yet…

I’ve had similar experience. The more time I’ve spent barefooting, the more any type of footwear aggravates my body – usually the knee’s and lower back.

I bought Vibram’s to serve as a transitional footwear when going barefoot just isn’t possible – like early Spring after a long cold winter. However, I’m already back to going barefoot anytime I can. Shoes stay off my feet unless absolutely necessary, and more often than not, it’s for social reasons moreso than practical ones.

It doesn’t look like anybody has mentioned it yet, so I’ll go ahead. It looks like the “conclusion” you came to with this article is the same as what Barefoot Ken Bob preaches ( Basically he advises against any footwear till you become very comfortable and efficient with your completely bare feet. At least that is the main point I’ve gathered from his website.

Also, thanks for Jeremys comment and followup. I also was a bit thrown off by the graphs up top. I started the article by trying to make sense of it and I don’t think it really adds much. Maybe a big picture that is just a funny picture at the top would make more sense then a graph for this article?


My graph looks more like a parabola- almost no injuries around minimal, but goes right back up at totally barefoot. I’ve been trying, but I constantly end up with at least half of my feet missing skin or otherwise irritated.

I see a problem in the barefoot community, which is that because “barefoot = running injury free” is such a strong message, there is very little help/info/tips for those of us that try barefooting and get injured. It seems to me that people in the barefoot community are almost afraid of talking about injuries, since that would hurt the message.. so people that does get injured better shut up for the higher good or something :-).

I would be nice to get a story from someone with a little more crooked way into barefooting. I’ve tried for two years but ended up with injury a few times (I have not given up though, but in rehab now). I don’t blame barefooting specifically, it is just that I haven’t found a balance that my body can cope with, and I’m very prone to get problems with my tibialis posterior tendons.

Leave a Reply

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