Imagine stepping out for a run without any shoes on—it’s called barefoot running, and it’s an emerging trend in the running and fitness industries.
For most people, running barefoot goes against conventional wisdom. Besides the “freeing” feeling of kicking off your shoes, what’s so compelling about running barefoot?
It turns out that despite advances in shoe technology meant to make running safer and more efficient, running injuries remain high. Avid barefoot runners claim that the answer to cutting down on injury and revving up running efficiency may not involve shoes at all.
“Most people have generally weak feet,” says David Weck, a barefoot runner and creator of the BOSU® Balance Trainer. “Running shoes actually let you get away with lazier running mechanics,” he says.
The theory behind barefoot running and walking is that it makes feet stronger, which leads to an overall stronger, more mobile and better functioning body. When you consider how our feet are meant to function, the benefits of barefoot running and walking become more obvious..
Barefoot Running Makes Feet Stronger
“Our feet evolved to interface with a variety of surfaces, and shoes almost completely eliminate that function of the foot,” says Anthony Carey, M.A., a corrective exercise specialist, author of The Pain Free Program: A Proven Method to Relieve Back, Neck, Shoulder and Joint Pain, and CEO of Function First.
Running barefoot helps your feet—and body--experience more varied terrain, which requires varied responses from the ankles and feet. The result? Running barefoot can strengthen and improve how the feet and ankles function—a benefit that transfers up to the entire body.
“The job of the foot is to absorb shock and enable the body to move forward,” says Justin Price, M.A., who specializes in assessing and correcting neuromuscular and structural imbalances at his facility The BioMechanics.
“The arch support in shoes takes away the ability of the foot to be strong,” Price says. When you eliminate the foot’s ability to properly absorb shock—because shoes do it for them—that shock tends to shift upward to the ankles, hips, knees and spine.
Better Running Efficiency
Another benefit of barefoot running is that “it creates better running efficiency because it helps you hold your body in the best position and alignment possible,” says Weck.
Some barefoot runners say this type of improved running economy reduces fatigue while running.
If you’re convinced that barefoot running is worth a try, progress gradually to sidestep the injuries you’re trying to avoid in the first place. “Learning new gait mechanics is a big part of barefoot running,” says Weck. “For example, your foot comes down flatter with barefoot running versus striking down with your heel first.”.
Train to Run Barefoot
Just as you might train to run a 10K, you must train to run barefoot (keeping in mind that people with foot deformities, diabetes, very weak feet and other conditions may not be good candidates for barefoot running at all).
“It’s not only necessary to have strong muscles in and around the foot, but it is also important to have strong ligaments and connective tissue,” says Carey.
“If your feet are not ready for going barefoot, you will get more stress to all joints,” says Price. So train with activities such as yoga, walking barefoot around the house or exercising on unstable surfaces, such as a BOSU® Balance Trainer (just be sure to wipe away excess moisture from sweaty bare feet when jumping and balancing on a BOSU ball).
It also helps to “prep” feet and the lower legs with soft-tissue mobilization techniques. “Use a small ball, the size of a golf ball or smaller, on the bottom of each foot to address the soft tissue between the small bones of the foot,” says Carey.
“Walking barefoot before running barefoot gives you a chance to see if your feet can tolerate the time out of shoes,” says Carey. “Equally important,” he adds, “is how the rest of the body responds to changes in the foot’s response to the ground.”
When you’re ready to break into running, Price suggests first alternating short bouts of barefoot walking and running during the same workout.
Finally, keep feet safe on the road. Some shoe manufacturers have developed footwear that simulates the barefoot experience while still protecting soles from sharp rocks, glass and whatever lurks on city streets.
And choose sensible terrain. “Barefoot runners might be wise to begin on more forgiving surfaces such as harder sand by the water, thicker grass or a rubber track,” says Carey. “All the value that could potentially come from spending time out of shoes may never happen due to injury if you begin too aggressively,” he says.