The Evolution of Running Shoes

No one really cared about the evolution of running shoes until runners started getting injured.

Barefoot running advocates, Dr. Steven Robbins (MD) and Dr. Daniel Lieberman (PhD), powerfully impacted the running community by disputing the so-called protective effects of the standard running shoe and wrote about the benefits of barefoot running in a concrete, objective way.

Evolution of Running Shoes

The research of Dr. Daniel Lieberman and Dr. Steven Robbins changed my life and I reference their work substantially to help others learn to run injury free.

Shoe Evolution
Barefoot running advocates Dr. Steven Robbins MD (left) at McGill University and Dr. Daniel Lieberman PhD (right) at Harvard University

The Evolution of Running Shoes

From my perspective, Robbins is anti-footwear, including anti-minimalism, because he firmly believes that like the standard running shoe, minimalist shoes cause injury, too.

Though pure minimalist shoes lack compressible materials, minimalist footwear such as the Vibram FiveFingers are far from ‘barefoot-like’ because they hinder plantar sensations, making a runner less adept to use inherent natural impact-moderating behaviors to run safely.

Nonetheless, Robbins debated Lieberman’s claim(s) whereby according to Lieberman throughout human evolution, humans ran barefoot or in thin, minimalistic footwear such as moccasins or sandals.

Robbins argued that humans evolved running barefooted, but did not evolve running in sandals or in moccasins because early examples of such minimalistic footwear show no way of firmly attaching foot to shoe.

A greater dose of Robbins arguments against Lieberman are as follows:

  • footwear was introduced to human evolution roughly 25,000 years ago, not “millions of years ago” and the type of footwear at that time provided thermal protection as humans migrated to more northern areas
  • the oldest leather footwear available known, dates back around 10,000 years ago (mukluk date) and this type of footwear was not minimalistic due to the amount of straw, feathers, and fur used as insulating materials. Therefore, such footwear was used for survival from the cold, not for running

Robbins further criticized Lieberman for using defensive techniques to avoid discussion of issues, questioning the intention of Lieberman’s publications on barefoot running in the Journal of Nature.

What Happened to the Barefoot Running Movement?

Robbins research, published nearly three decades ago, demonstrated that barefoot activity effectively improves foot strength and balance and that footwear, minimalist shoes included, mutes plantar sensory activity thereby disrupting foot function and biomechanics.

To my understanding, Robbins issue with Lieberman’s work is that, in the end, the barefoot running movement lost momentum because Lieberman properly disclosed a conflict of interest with Vibram, as Vibram supported Lieberman’s research.

Robbins argued that Lieberman’s pseudoscientific evolutionary arguments in conjunction with claiming that running in the Vibram FiveFingers resembles barefoot locomotion, was intended to satisfy Vibram who, remember, supported Lieberman’s research, to sell shoes.

Among other things, there’s a good chance that the barefoot running movement lost momentum because inexperienced barefoot runners frequently switched between running in the Vibrams and running barefoot as opposed to running barefoot habitually, without plantar interference of a rubber sole.

  • Barefoot running seems to do the trick for optimizing impact-moderating behavior, but can Vibram really do the same?

Most habitual barefoot runners will tell you that running barefoot and running in the Vibram’s are two different experiences, barefoot being the preferred running condition among these runners.

Barefoot running does a better job at telling your body how to run; whereas pure minimalist shoes interfere with proprioception, to a lesser extent than the standard running shoe, but enough to have health consequences.

My Thoughts

I have a neutral position on the viewpoints of Lieberman and Robbins as I am biased towards both experts because their research has been invaluable to me as a runner. I understand that barefoot running provides a much richer environment regarding proprioception -I’ve experienced this myself as I use barefoot running to refine my form.

As for Lieberman, even if his publications are ‘commercially charged’ to promote Vibram, recommending Vibram as a running shoe is in part, a step in the right direction to steer runners away from relying so much on shoe cushioning and instead, develop the ability to learn to land softly on their own.

More From Run Forefoot:

Forefoot Running

Heel Strike Running

How the Best Runners Run

Why Orthotics are Bad


Robbins, SE. (2011, November).Conversation with Daniel Lieberman about minimalist shoes. Retrieved from

Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!

1 Comment

  1. Curious; what your opinion on these thick-soled shoes led by Nike these days? Personally, I don’t like it–I think it is performance-enhancing (unfortunately, people across the board are running faster) and would eventually cause some issues in a long run. I have been a minimalist and forefoot runner for a several decades now. By the way, personally I don’t like a term “striker” whether it’s used for heel-striker or forefoot striker. “Strike” represents too much force. I like “feather-light” landing or tip-toe landing… ;o)

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