Running is a universal activity and as easy to engage with as going outside your house, to your local park, or to your gym as you prefer. In recent years, barefoot running has emerged as a popular running trend. While you might not want to go barefoot at your local gym for politeness’ sake, trying out this running style can be a great way to strengthen your feet.
What Is Barefoot Running?
The shoes that we wear form the base of how we interact with the world around us. Our gait, speed, and posture alter depending on our shoe type. When examining the feet of people who both did and did not wear shoes, it was found that some types of footwear change the way we run in a negative way, creating an increased injury risk.
Barefoot running is self-explanatory as the act of running without wearing shoes. After all, footwear has been around since early human history, and going around barefoot in some public places may be seen as a faux pas. As beneficial as footwear is, it can cause some bad habits and unfortunate damage that barefoot running can improve and reverse.
How Does Barefoot Running Work?
Various muscles in the lower body act to improve stability and absorb the shock from repeated impacts against running surfaces. The classic running shoes were developed in the 1970s. These shoes provided cushioning and arch support to help athletes avoid injuries caused by their existing footwear.
When running without shoes, the entirety of the shock is absorbed by your feet. This can lead to discomfort if your feet muscles aren’t properly built up or if your foot lacks sufficient calluses.
Calluses are thickened patches of skin caused by repeated shock and friction caused by movement, which is essential for some athletes, including barefoot runners. Most commonly, you hear the importance of calluses discussed in the dance world. Calluses provide necessary protection when dancing in either bare feet or else highly minimalist shoes.
Barefoot running forces you to be more efficient with the way you move. Despite the support from protective footwear, these shoes have led to some unfortunate habits. Many people walk or run with their heels hitting the ground first. This can cause knee pain and strain on one's joints. This movement, "heel strike," can also cause plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendinitis.
When studying gait, scientists zoom in on the word "foot strike." This word describes how runners land and the best way for them to run injury-free. The runners that are least likely to experience pain in their lower limbs have a midfoot strike or forefoot strike. They also have a shorter stride and more natural gait, which leads to increased flexibility and better posture.
Potential Benefits of Barefoot Running
Scientists are still trying to understand the effects of barefoot running in sports biomechanics, but there are some key benefits we get from running barefoot.
The general hypothesis is that wearing shoes while running can lead to a weakened arch and a stiff foot in the long term. Advocates say that running without shoes is the answer. By making the muscles of the footwork harder and synergize better, foot strength can be increased over time, and impact-related injuries in some cases can be reversed.
Proprioception is a word that gets thrown around a lot in running circles, and it refers to spatial awareness and understanding of how your body is actively moving. Proprioception is best improved through activities that expose your body to uneven conditions, including yoga, trail running, and of course, barefoot running.
Barefoot running lets you feel everything, giving the practical benefit of body awareness and a brand new way to experience your trail. Whether asphalt or grass lies underneath you, you’ll be experiencing a range of sensations we often lack in our fast-paced world.
Barefoot running can reduce injury, but this comes with a caveat: While barefoot runners reportedly have fewer knee injuries, they have a higher incidence rate of calf and Achilles tendon injuries. By going slowly, making sure not to rush too quickly into running long distances or on challenging surfaces.
Health by the Numbers
These benefits are excellent, but the overall effect is scientifically quantifiable: Running efficiency in barefoot runners is increased by 4% compared to runners wearing shoes. This can be most easily explained by the above changes running without shoes makes, but also by the weight of the shoe itself.
Suppose your shoe weighs about 10 ounces, and you have 3,000 steps in a race (this number will be a lot less in sprints and a lot higher in marathons). By the end of the race, you’ll have lifted 1,875 pounds in addition to your own body weight when compared to runners without shoes. It might just be 10 ounces, but even the smallest weight adds up.
Transitioning To Barefoot Running
Going straight from a heavily cushioned athletic shoe to bare feet on pavement can jolt your system. There are many solutions to ease the transition here. As children, we all took our first steps before truly walking, and in our exercise routines, we all started with the basics before we could witness growth. Take your first barefoot steps walking something other than the comfort of your home, whether that be on the gravel or on a treadmill.
Normally when running, the movement and angling of your foot are forced to conform to the design of your sole shape and shoe cushioning. With barefoot running, your feet are unconstrained and exposed to the elements.
Your feet are encouraged to flex and conform to whatever gives the greatest deal of comfort. To allow for a comfortable transition, start running on soft, forgiving surfaces like grass or sand as you build up your technique and make the move to concrete.
From a gear perspective, minimalist shoes/barefoot shoes exist, which offer smaller amounts of protection while still replicating the sensation of running barefoot. These shoes showcase less cushioning and more natural shapes, sometimes even mimicking the shape of individual toes.
Whether you want an easier transition or simply want to experience some of the benefits of barefoot running without needing to go around with your shoes on, minimal footwear offers a great middle-ground between overdesigned athletic shoes and free feet.
Often the key to a great workout is the gear we choose. When heading out on a run, make sure to wear clothing that will help you push harder. Pick a workout outfit made to work just as hard as you do without looking like it even broke a sweat.
When To Avoid Barefoot Running
You should definitely consider barefoot running, but before you go throwing out all your running shoes, keep in mind that there are some situations where going barefoot just won’t cut it.
If it’s too cold to be outside for long periods of time without shoes, keep your shoes on to avoid getting frostbite. Similarly, in regards to hazard avoidance, avoid being barefoot if you are running in an area where broken glass or other sharp objects may be in your path.
Regardless of where you’re running, if your feet are exposed to the open air, they are going to get dirty, and a bit of your running path is going to come home with you. If this is a major issue, plan on showering right after you finish your run or considering using minimalist shoes for a bit of protection.
In terms of personal hazards, running without shoes may aggravate existing foot injuries. If you have any nerve damage in your feet, then you may endure a foot injury without realizing it until midway or after the conclusion of your run. It’s also important to remember not to transition to total barefoot running for distances too quickly.
As mentioned before, runners who forego shoes show higher cases of Achilles tendon damage and calf injuries. This can at least be partially attributed to the tendency running shoes can give individuals to land on their heels, which exposes the foot to injury and creates an inefficient method for running. Either start on soft surfaces or take your time walking to become totally aware of how you move your foot to avoid these problems.
While you can sometimes go barefoot in races, this may be inadvisable unless you are comfortable both with the level of experience you have and with the individual nature of the race you’re competing in. Barefoot running worked out for Abebe Bikila, who won gold in the 1960 Olympics. Four years later, he clinched another victory while lacing up, showing that some of the technical benefits of running without shoes can carry over once you’ve redonned your shoes.
Giving Barefoot Running a Chance
Something which seems unorthodox at first can have a strong basis. This is certainly the case for running without shoes. Choose your preferred path, don’t lace up, and have fun making your own way in this new (old) running trend.