Over the past forty years, running has developed into one of the most popular physical leisure activities, with millions of people using it for regular exercise. It is convenient, cheap, takes up very little time in your day, and offers an amazing array of health benefits. With a pair of running shoes, anyone can start running.
In terms of health benefits, running helps improve the immune system, control body weight, prevent heart diseases and hypertension, decrease cholesterol, and improve the efficiency of the cardiorespiratory system. Aside from health benefits, there are many psychological benefits such as stress reduction, attitude, and confidence improvement.
If running is so good for us, how come around 70 percent of runners sustain an injury at some point?
Well, the shoe industry has done a great job at convincing us that our feet are somehow imperfect and running is an impact sport so to be able to run we need to cushion our feet in tight, “protective” shoes. However, recent research has shown the exact opposite, that the more maximal the running shoe the greater the likelihood that the runner will get a higher impact peak and increased loading rate, which leads to injuries, such as plantar fasciitis and tibial stress fractures.
The human foot is designed to be moved, to be free, and to be in contact with the ground as often as possible. Instead, these days, the foot’s natural shape has been changed by wearing something on our feet at all times, the toes become misaligned and pinched together over time. Ultimately, this deforms the foot and leads to foot problems, which leaves people prone to injury and poor function.
Many latest researches supported the claims that barefoot running was healthy and natural (Cook, et al, 1990; van Mechelen, 1992; Robbins & Hanna, 1987).
So what exactly is barefoot running and how to start going barefoot? In this guide, I will cover all the natural running basics you need to get going!
- What is Barefoot Running?
- Why Go Barefoot?
- Basics Of Barefoot Running
- Barefoot Running Equipment
- Getting Started – Step By Step Guide For Barefoot Running
- FAQs On Barefoot Running
- More reading On Barefoot Running
What is Barefoot Running?
Barefoot running, natural running, and minimalist running are all terms that describe running in a manner that allows the foot to function the way nature intended.
Barefoot running occurs when someone runs without any footwear at all. They can use what’s called their proprioception (awareness of your feet in space). This is to determine how they place their foot and how much pressure they put on it. This is different from running with shoes because the foot has to do more work and you have less control over where your feet land.
This takes time, but if someone runs barefoot for a few weeks or months, they will develop this proprioception. Eventually, they can run without any footwear at all!
The theory behind this movement is that by eliminating excess padding from your foot’s impact with the ground and allowing your feet to function more naturally, you will be able to run faster and prevent injuries.
With the release of the book about Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, the interest in going barefoot has popularly risen.
Why Go Barefoot?
Shoe companies are a huge industry, and a large percentage of their sales are running shoes. So the last thing that a shoe company would want is for runners to start going barefoot. However, shoe companies know the benefits of running barefoot. For example, Nike has the following message,
In addition to Nike’s recommendation of running barefoot, Newton Running shoe company explains the benefits of barefoot running on their website
“To discover your best running form all you need to do is run barefoot. You’ll immediately discover that when barefoot you’re not landing on your heels, you’re striking on your forefoot.
Striking on your forefoot is the most natural way to run, it is also the fastest and most efficient way to run. Newton Running shoes were developed to make your feet think they’re barefoot and increase your performance.”
as well as with the following diagram,
Even the shoe companies that would lose business if people started to run barefoot still agree that running barefoot is better for you. While these shoes are not a good substitute for running barefoot, the shoe companies do have the right idea.
For those of you who aren’t convinced by the shoe companies, there has been much research done about the benefits of barefoot running. For example, the article listed here from the SPORT SCIENCE journal finds that barefoot runners exhibit fewer injuries and are about 4% more efficient. You can find many more articles if you search google scholar for Barefoot Running.
Finally, many people ask
“If barefoot running is so good for you, then why don’t more elite athletes run barefoot?”
There are a couple of answers to this. The first is that there is a transition period to running barefoot. Since wearing shoes is the norm, many people grow up wearing shoes, and start running wearing shoes. Therefore, even though running barefoot may be better, most runners are not willing to take some time to transition to barefoot running.
What about the elite runners that grow up running barefoot? Most runners would be willing to run in a certain type of shoe if that shoe company were willing to pay them $1 million per year. However, if they run barefoot, then they have far fewer sponsorship opportunities. So essentially, it makes sense economically for the elite runners to run in shoes.
The last answer to this question is that some elite runners do run barefoot. For example, consider the barefoot runner Zola Budd, the two-time 5K world record holder, and world cross country champion. Also, the barefoot runner Abebe Bikila, who was a marathon champion and world record holder.
The potential benefits of barefoot running
- Reduction of ground reaction forces: The most obvious benefit of barefoot running is the reduction in impact on your feet. This leads to a lower chance of injury, so you must do this if possible! Going barefoot reduced impact force when performed on a sufficient number of steps (Divert, et al., 2005, 2008; Squadrone & Gallozzi, 2009; Leiberman, et al., 2010).
- The second thing would be that running with less impact will result in better gait mechanics. When we normally run, our foot falls out and towards the ground due to gravity. But when we go barefoot, our toes are more pointed upwards and land at an angle like they should (which then forces us to have good posture).
- Another great reason people might want to start taking off their shoes while running is that doing so can help boost your proprioception and increase awareness of where you are in space. Being able to feel the ground beneath your feet can help someone know what they’re doing wrong.
- Running barefoot has been proven to be better for people who have a hard time with pronation (their foot rolls inward or outward while walking which puts more pressure on their ankles) as it forces them to modify how they walk so that this doesn’t happen! This is because when running barefoot the arch of our foot gets flattened out due to gravity.
The potential harms of barefoot running
- Injuries from running surfaces
- Exposure to microorganisms/infectious agents
- Lack of support (Denton, 2005).
- Poor running pattern; causes muscle strains
- The other problem with going too far without footwear is that we start to lose some protective padding around our feet from all the impact. But if done correctly, this shouldn’t happen until after months of practicing.
Basics Of Barefoot Running
The first important thing to know about barefoot running is that it should be done on soft surfaces. Running outside on grass or sand, if you have access to those areas, is the best option for a beginner. You can also do this at home by using a rug in your living room and sticking close to walls so you don’t have to worry about turning.
You will also want to be sure that you are running on a surface with little traction like grass, sand, or carpeting. Treadmills and other hard surfaces should not be used for barefoot running as they can cause injury if done improperly. The second most important thing to know is that your feet have the important job of absorbing the impact when you run.
That is why it’s important to be sure that your feet are bare before running and properly protected if not. You should never go out running without any socks on. Or with shoes that have a lot of cushioning in them as this will defeat the whole purpose!
Barefoot Running Equipment
The evolution of running shoes has been changed. Barefoot shoes have been believed to not only help the foot develop in the correct way and strengthen all the muscles in the foot, but also dramatically reduce running-related injuries.
The characteristics of barefoot shoes (Richards & Hollowell, 2011; Kaselj, 2012): Anatomical correctness, Close to the ground, Neutral/lack of drop, Lightweight, Wide toe box, Rotational and Longitudinal flexibility, Slipper-like.
There are many minimalist shoes available for those who want to start running barefoot. The most popular of these is the Vibram Five Fingers (sometimes called “toe shoes” or “finger-shoes”).
The problem with these shoes is that they have a large amount of padding on them which leads some people to think it’s safer – but this may not be true!
I would recommend starting with something like Nike Frees. And then moving onto more minimalistic footwear once you’re used to going without any at all.
During your transition phase, you should go with heavier than normal minimalist shoes before going over to light ones.
If you plan on using your regular running sneakers (during your transition phase) as your only form of protection from injury, make sure there isn’t anything sharp sticking up in to avoid getting injured.
Getting Started – Step By Step Guide For Barefoot Running
In this section, I will explain in six simple steps how to start running barefoot. Remember that you should always be careful when doing this and be very mindful of where your feet are going!
With that being said, let’s start.
Step 1 – Try running barefoot or with barefoot shoes on a hard surface
Try going barefoot on hard surfaces like a sidewalk or cement. This will build up your foot’s proprioception and how to react without shoes on. But start slowly, people with knees & ankle issues can take the help of minimalist shoes to help them in this task.
Going barefoot or with barefoot shoes on a hard surface is a good way to build up your foot’s proprioception. I would advise someone who does not have any knee or ankle issues to try this step first, before moving onto more challenging steps.
Step 2 – Slowly lengthen the time you run barefoot
Try running for one minute the first day, two minutes the next. Try to build up gradually as your feet will need time to get used to being on a hard surface without any protection!
Try running for one minute on a cement sidewalk, then run back inside to your carpeted floor! This will help you get used to going from hard ground (where there is less padding) to soft carpets or fluffy grass.
This step is important as it teaches us how our foot reacts when we go from a harder surface like concrete onto something softer. Take this opportunity to learn where your feet land without shoes so that you know what exactly needs work to perfect the technique of being barefoot while running.
Running on different surfaces also helps prepare the foot for different conditions such as hard, smooth surfaces and uneven ground.
Step 3- Eventually, you can do shorter runs completely with barefoot shoes.
In step 3, you will find out how to start running with barefoot shoes. Running barefoot may be a little difficult at first, but with practice and time, it becomes natural. Also, since you gave time to your body to adjust & adapt to barefoot running gradually. You will soon see yourself feeling confident to go for shorter runs with barefoot shoes.
Step 4 – Now you can stop using your running shoes entirely
You already have prepared yourself for the transition by slowly getting used to running barefoot outside with minimalistic footwear. Now practice running without shoes on hard surfaces for longer periods of time. This is the phase where you are getting comfortable with running without shoes on.
But remember – always protect your feet and use a pair of socks when going onto difficult surfaces. Keep in mind that the ground can have some sharp objects such as sticks or rocks which could injure your feet if they’re not covered up.
Step 5 – Gradually try running completely barefoot, on softer or smoother surfaces.
Once you are comfortable with step 4, you will be able to transition over to soft & smoother surfaces running barefoot.
Start completely going shoeless during small walks around your neighborhood. You can do this by wearing socks that are thin enough so they won’t get dirty, but thick enough so they don’t rub against anything too bad. I would recommend doing short distances at first before working your way up to longer ones as this gives time for changes in our feet’s anatomy due to walking/running barefoot!
Step 6 – Listen to your body and enjoy the experience
Most importantly enjoying your runs is important as running barefoot is something that should be done for the love of it and not out of obligation.
I can listen to my body and enjoy the experience of running barefoot because I don’t feel pressured to do it out of obligation. It’s worth it to listen to your body if anything so you can enjoy the experience! The more you enjoy the longer you can keep up with any task at hand and the same holds for this.
FAQs On Barefoot Running
Where Not To Run Barefoot?
Barefoot running should be avoided if there is pavement because people have been known to break their feet from hitting an uneven spot. When going out without any footwear or socks, the most important thing is ensuring that your feet are protected by putting something over them. This is so they don’t get scratched by the ground.
How much time will it take for my feet to adjust to the new style of running?
It can take anywhere from a few weeks to months for your feet to adjust.
How do I know if my shoes are minimalist?
If you look at the sole of the shoe, there should not be more than one layer on it. If they have more than that then they are considered traditional running shoes. This also means that most athletic footwear will fall into this category. But some shoes might be exceptions because their soles still allow them to flex with our natural stride when you run barefoot.
What is my first step in transitioning over?
The transition starts by gradually shortening how long you wear your running shoes while running. And slowly decreasing the amount of time that they are worn in general before it’s just barefoot all the way! When transitioning over I would recommend starting with a sand surface because this will be less painful for feet to adjust (especially if there are any cracks or sharp objects like twigs).
How can I prevent injuries?
Protecting your feet from injury may not seem too important but it’s actually one of the most important aspects when considering going shoeless. When wearing footwear make sure to put on socks that cover up your feet.
If you are going barefoot outside your home, it is recommended that you use footwear with a back and rubber soles. This is to stop you from slipping on surfaces like marble floors or wet ground. If going barefoot, be mindful of the ground – it can have dirt or sharp objects like sticks.
More reading On Barefoot Running
Barefoot Running – sportsci.org
Running Barefoot, Forefoot Striking & Training Tips – Barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu
There’s New Research on the Science of Barefoot Running – OutsideOnline.com
The Human Foot – Natural Engineering At Its Finest – Spinecentral.co.uk
Barefoot Running: Should You Try It? – Webmd.com
(PDF) Barefoot Running – ResearchGate.net
Barefoot running is bad for you – Xeroshoes.com
Is your barefoot running form correct? – ThePeacefulRunner.com
Everything You Need to Know About Barefoot Running Techniques – Runnersathletics.com
How to Safely Transition to Barefoot Running – Trainingpeaks.com
Chi Running: Proper Barefoot Form – Forefoot Running – Earthrunners.com
Barefoot Running Guide – Learning Barefoot Technique and How It Can Benefit You – Sportcoaching.co.nz
Barefoot running has been gaining popularity as people are more and more aware of the benefits that it can bring. The most obvious benefit is being able to run with less impact on your body, which leads to a lower chance for injury. Other benefits include better gait mechanics and increased proprioception (your awareness of where your feet are in space).
If you are new to barefoot running, I hope that this guide has been helpful. Barefoot running is a fantastic way to strengthen your feet and legs while improving balance and posture. You’ll also feel more connected with the earth beneath your feet – an experience unlike any other! I encourage you to give it a try if you haven’t already. Now go out there and run free!
- Wilks DC, Winwood K, Gilliver SF, Kwiet A, Chatfield M, Michaelis I, Sun LW, Ferretti JL, Sargeant AJ, Felsenberg D, Rittweger J. Bone mass and geometry of the tibia and the radius of master sprinters, middle and long distance runners, race-walkers and sedentary control participants: a pQCT study. Bone. 2009 Jul 1;45(1):91-7.
- Hreljac AL, Marshall RN, Hume PA. Evaluation of lower extremity overuse injury potential in runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2000 Sep 1;32(9):1635-41.
- Hanson NJ, Berg K, Deka P, Meendering JR, Ryan C. Oxygen cost of running barefoot vs. running shod. International journal of sports medicine. 2011 Jun 1;32(6):401.
- Altman AR, Davis IS. Barefoot running: biomechanics and implications for running injuries. Current sports medicine reports. 2012 Sep 1;11(5):244-50.
- Squadrone R, Gallozzi C. Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced barefoot runners. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2009 Mar 1;49(1):6-13.
- Hatala KG, Dingwall HL, Wunderlich RE, Richmond BG. Variation in foot strike patterns during running among habitually barefoot populations. PloS one. 2013 Jan 9;8(1):e52548.