It’s not as odd as it may sound. After all, humans have been running for thousands of years, and long before the invention of shoes. Even today, some of the top runners – both on the track and long distance – train and even race without shoes. The famous Zola Budd raced without shoes, and it didn’t slow her down! In some countries, like South Africa and Australia, barefoot running is fairly well established, and is frequent in the training programs of cross country runners in particular. So, is there something behind this that makes barefoot running really work?
Why barefoot running works
First of all, barefoot running allows the foot to move, land, and absorb shock (referred to scientifically as the impact transient) naturally. Modern running shoes, while designed to prevent injury, actually increase the likelihood of injury largely by restricting the movement of the foot, and thereby allowing the foot musculature to atrophy. Squeezed and cushioned, the foot contributes little to running. Once barefoot, though, the foot can move naturally, and plays much more of an intricate role with every step.
All in all, the foot aids greatly in shock absorption that shod runners (who land on their heels 75% of the time) end up absorbing in their joints. Without the cushioning heel of a running shoe, the barefoot runner naturally strikes nearer the front of the foot, with either a “forefoot” or “mid-foot” landing. This means that the barefoot runner actually reduces the impact transient on the lower leg, which after thousands of heel strikes the cushioned-heel runner will undoubtedly feel. Next, the barefoot runner leans a little more forward than the shod runner, preserving momentum and getting more push off the foot itself. This makes for more efficient running, and less strain on the muscles of the upper leg.
Running shoes have also been shown to decrease actual running efficiency. Even lighter shoes add weight, which is in turn placed on the legs and joints, preventing a natural stride. The cushioning sole of a shoe also absorbs some of the spring of the foot, instead of transferring it directly to forward motion.
Isn’t barefoot running for hardcore marathon runners?
Absolutely not! Barefoot running isn’t about being hardened or tough, quite the opposite. Running barefoot allows you to be much more sensitive to what the nerve endings in your foot are telling your body. Consequently, you run more gently and more efficiently. People may look at you strangely, but then again, they may very well think you really tough! The ultimate joy of running freely overshadows a passerby’s double take any day!
Are there any risks to barefoot running?
Most healthy people can run barefoot! It is always a good idea to seek medical advice and to get a checkup before beginning any new style of training. If you have any current injuries or sores, let them heal before you start barefoot running, or any other new exercise for that matter. Barefoot running will force you to use different muscles, will use ligaments in new ways, and will leave you sore for the first few weeks, at least. It is best to start slowly and begin by walking for a few weeks barefoot before transitioning to barefoot running.
Similarly, if you are prone to running injuries, proceed with caution. There is some evidence that barefoot running actually reduces the risk of injuries. One factor is that you will have a heightened awareness of your body, debris or other elements on the ground, and your own stride. However, if you have history of foot or leg injuries, take sensible precautions. Start slowly, and if you find you experience some discomfort early on, use cold foot baths after your first few barefoot runs to limit inflammation and early muscle strain.
Some medical conditions require caution too. Anyone who experienced numbness in their feet, such as those with diabetes, may need to avoid barefoot running. You need to be aware of where you are putting your feet, and how they feel. If you have reduced sensitivity in your feet, you may not notice internal or external injuries. Check with your doctor first if you have any conditions affecting circulation or sensation in your feet.
For some people, where they live may limit how much barefoot running they can do. Very cold or hot climates may mean you can only leave the shoes at home at certain times of the year. If you can’t be sure the surface you run on will be clear of debris, then look for a park or fields to run in, rather than risk treading on broken glass or sharp rocks. With that said, you might be surprised at the surfaces you can run over barefoot once you get used to it, but use your common sense and avoid really dangerous surfaces. And, don’t be afraid to find that perfect pair of minimal footwear (which allows you to run more naturally by not inhibiting your foot’s landing or your stride). We’ll be talking more about various types of minimal footwear throughout our articles, so be sure to subscribe to our RSS Feed and Sign up on the homepage for our newsletters.
Sounds interesting. How do I get started?
If you want to run faster, run better, and run freer, then barefoot may be just right for you. The thing to remember as a new barefoot runner is to have patience. Check out our other articles and our soon-to-be released barefoot running book on getting started to find out more about how to toughen your feet, adapt your muscles, and join the thousands of other runners enjoying an active life sans shoes!