Barefoot running, as the name implies, involves running without wearing any shoes on your feet. This was how our ancestors would have ran before the advent of shoes and still remains a common practice in many countries such as Kenya. Barefoot running in industrialized countries was rather rare until recently, when we are seeing a surge in barefoot and minimal footwear running. Although barefoot running seems to be more inline with our foot’s natural biomechanics, is this practice right for everyone?
Supporters of barefoot running feel it is healthier for the feet, reducing the incidence of repetitive stress injuries and other chronic conditions common to runners. The reasoning behind this argument lies in the mechanics of running in barefoot versus in shoes. When running barefoot the outer edge of the foot strikes the ground with the most force. As opposed to padded running shoes, which place more of the force within the heel and back of the foot, resulting in more force transmitted through the knees and hips. As well, running barefoot strengthens the foot muscles that support and maintain good foot arches and helps strengthen the calf muscles and proprioception. These muscles were not found to be as active while wearing typical running shoes with a thick sole.
Like any skill, running barefoot, as natural as it seems takes some time to learn. When most people attempt barefoot running they will continue to land on their heels and not their forefoot. With time and practice, your foot and brain will learn the proper mechanics. As well, you must take into account that during this “learning” phase you will be using more of your calf, ankle and hamstring muscles – this can at times be a painful learning experience.
So it would seem we should all run home (barefoot of course) and throw those tennis shoes in the trash. But wait, it is not all bad news for shoes.
For some the shift from shoe to barefoot may be too big of an undertaking. We must bear in mind that foot mechanics and skill level vary significantly from person to person. Some people will be able to pick up barefoot running with only slight muscle soreness, others will struggle but eventually get it. Those with structural foot problems, differing skill levels or those have worn shoes for 30, 40 or 50 years may find that barefoot running will never be for them.
If you decide to try barefoot running, remember this transition can take time, so begin slowly by walking around your house barefoot. Try a minimalistic shoe such as the Nike Free or Vibram 5-finger shoe to walk in for short distances or low intensity workouts. As your foot becomes stronger increase your workout intensity and duration with you “minimal shoe” on and then if you wish transition to complete barefoot running.
To shoe or not to shoe that is the question. The health claims of barefoot running are supported by some research and advocated by some authorities, but the jury is still out as to whether this practice is right for everyone. Barefoot running can be a very effective and beneficial for some, but as the old saying goes – one size does not fit all.