Take Off Your Shoes! The Pleasures of Running Barefoot

I must admit, I am wary of the concept of running barefoot.  As a runner with serious conformational weaknesses and considerable foot pronation, I have run with the aid of high-stability shoes and heavy duty orthotics for years.  For me, just the thought of running without shoes makes my knees and shins ache.  Thus, before diving into this discussion I must disclose that I have never run barefoot and can only speak of the research done by others, and of second-hand experiences.  However, as more and more people spruik the benefits of this style of running, the loud voice of barefoot running is becoming harder to ignore.

The Theory

For years, ancient man ran barefoot without discomfort so why is it that the modern man needs to run with the help of structured running shoes, boasting built-up heels, arch support and stiff soles?

It is from this question that the theory of barefoot running evolved.  Lieberman and his associates – experts in the biomechanics of running – suggest that those who run barefoot habitually employ a forefoot or mid-foot strike whilst those who run shod display a heel strike. It is this difference that enables barefoot runners to run barefoot and pain free as the impact of a mid or forefoot strike on the feet and lower limbs is greatly reduced compared to a heel strike1.

It is likely that since the introduction of modern running shoes in the 1970s, we have become ‘lazy’ runners, opting for the easier heel-strike action over a more biomechanically sound but physically taxing forefoot strike.  Thus, it is now suggested that transitioning back to barefoot running and adopting a forefoot strike action may reduce your risk of injury.

Furthermore, many shoe companies now produce a barefoot or minimalist running shoe.  These are thin soled shoes designed to mimic the experience of barefoot running whilst protecting your feet from the elements, rocks, glass and all the other nasties you may encounter whilst running.

The Practice

The key to switching to barefoot running is to transition very, very slowly.  Ditching your usual running shoes will result in huge changes in the forces applied through your feet and the muscles you use to run.  Launching into barefoot running too quickly is a definite fast-track to injury.  Instead, introduce barefoot running gradually and when I say gradually I mean really SLOWLY.  Your introduction to barefoot running should take months and look something like this:

  • Strengthen your feet
  • Introduce barefoot walking in your everyday activities i.e. try walking barefoot around the house, walk barefoot to the mail box etc
  • Do low-impact exercise barefoot i.e. cross-trainer or exercise bike
  • Try longer walks outside barefoot
  • Introduce short intervals (minutes) of barefoot running
  • Gradually increase the amount of time spent barefoot – for at least the first 2 weeks your total barefoot running should not exceed 30 mins a week
  • Stop if you feel any soreness or develop an injury

The Anecdotes

Most runners will know at least one person who has turned to barefoot running with the outcomes varying greatly.  Some people swear by barefoot running as a solution for persistent injuries.  Amanda struggled with recurrent knee pain for the past two years and took up barefoot running after a friend suggested she try it.  Although the initial transition left her with some mild calf soreness, once her muscles had adapted she was able to run 5kms consistently without any knee pain for the first time in years!

Conversely, many people will suffer an injury directly related to barefoot running.  Take for example ultra-marathon runner, John, who decided to give barefoot running a go after reading about the benefits of this new technique.  While his first run was only 500m, within 3 weeks he was clocking nearly 10km barefoot on the road.  One training run, John developed a searing pain in his right foot which, after several days of rest, had not resolved.  Diagnosis: stress fracture.  After three months in a foot cast John was able to return to running, which he did with shoes firmly laced on his feet.

Conclusion

Barefoot running encourages the runner to adopt a biomechanically gentler running style and may reduce the risk of injury.  However, without solid evidence of an improvement in injury rates I encourage you to think about whether barefoot running is for you.  If you’re not prepared to introduce barefoot running gradually, then you’re probably best to stick with shoes – rushing the transition is a definite no-no.  However, if you’re looking for an answer to recurrent injuries then barefoot running might be just the solution you need.