Originally Published: October 22, 2010 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 10, 2015
I'm a runner and have recently heard about people who go running sans footwear. I've always been slightly skeptical about shoes and would like to see if barefoot running is a good alternative. Is it safe? Will I be able to run faster? What's the deal with running barefoot these days, Alice? Thanks!
Dear Toe-tally Barefoot,
Aside from "getting back to nature," many runners who choose to go shoeless do so to prevent injury, though if you haven't experienced injury in traditional running shoes, there's little added benefit to switching. Running shoes aim to reduce pressure on the heel, but in doing so, affect the natural tendency for some people to run on the front part of their foot which acts as a natural shock absorber. Though studies aren't conclusive, some evidence suggested that the sturdy, built-up heels developed to cushion feet in running shoes may actually contribute to injuries, such as plantar fasciitis. Also, without the added weight at the end of your legs, your body may use up to five percent less energy during your run, which some people claim helps them run faster. The natural spring that comes from landing on the front of the foot may also add to this, but it's unlikely to increase your pace substantially.
By relying more on the muscles of your feet, toes, and ankles to propel you forward, running barefoot may contribute to stronger muscles in the arch of the foot and the calf as well as less pressure on your knees. However, for people who naturally land hard on their heels, they may need to take extra precautions. Shortening their stride and focusing on landing on the mid to front part of the foot may help prevent injury when running sans shoes. The extra workout also requires increased attention to stretching and massaging the muscles in the legs and feet before and after running to prevent strain, muscle tears, and scar tissue build-up.
At first, some runners who switch from traditional running shoes to being barefoot may feel discomfort in their feet, legs, and hips. Aside from the fact that your shoe-accustomed feet may require some sensorial adjustment, other parts of your body will likely need time to acclimate as well. One way to minimize discomfort is to transition gradually. Slowly build up distance (starting at a quarter mile to one mile every other day) sans shoes. If you're already a skilled runner, run with shoes for most of your run, then progressively increase the amount of time without shoes. A good rule of thumb is to increase distance without shoes by ten percent every week. Muscle soreness will likely occur as your body adjusts, but pain in your joints or bones may be a sign of injury. You may want to discuss your potential injuries with a health care provider.
For those with less skepticism about shoes, some manufacturers are producing minimal footwear, or lighter running shoes with flatter, more flexible soles that mimic the benefits of being barefoot. Less cushioning and elevation in the heel may offer many of the same benefits as barefoot running while still protecting your tootsies from the elements. To learn more about barefoot running or running in minimal footwear, check out the great videos and tips from Harvard's Skeletal Biology Lab.
No shoes? No problem! Just watch out for debris!