Conventionally, runners have turned to rubber shoes for comfort and support.
It’s no surprise, then, that athletic shoe companies make millions of dollars selling their state-of-the art sturdy, sleek, and stylish sportswear. In 2019 in the United States alone, the athletic footwear market revenue amounted to close to $15 million.
However, recently, many people have shed their shoes for a return to a most naturalistic approach: barefoot running.
Interested in doing the same?
If so, I’m about to cover everything you need to know about barefoot running in order to get started on the right (bare) foot.
Is Running Barefoot Better Than Running in Shoes?
Running with shoes and running barefoot are two very different endeavors that require different techniques and training.
But is one better than the other?
A great deal of debate and research continues to weigh the pros and cons of shod (with shoe) versus shodless (barefoot) running, but it’s important to remember that both styles can offer considerable benefits to one’s overall fitness.
Most companies sell runners on the idea that their specially-designed running shoes help athletes run harder and faster. They promise shoes with superior cushioning, flexibility, stability, motion control, and traction on road or trails.
For instance, consider Nike, which claims its Zoom Vaporfly 4% “provides an even lighter, more breathable” shoe by using a special ultra-lightweight, soft foam, and full-length curved carbon fiber plate. Nike brags its shoe can create a “sensation of propulsion” that increases a runner’s economy by 4%.
However, researchers at the University of Newcastle have noted a lack of scientific evidence to support the notion that specially-designed running shoes help prevent overall injuries.
In fact, some shoes are actually designed to make the wearer land unnaturally on their heels, impairing balance and increasing the probability of ankle strains and acute injuries.
And some researchers have even noted that running in highly-cushioned shoes increases leg stiffness and amplifies impact loading. Despite decades of technological advances with these cushions, it seems as though the impact on runners’ legs and any associated injuries have not decreased.
Which brings me to the burning question:
Is it worth it to toss the shoes and transition to the world of barefoot running?
Potential Benefits of Barefoot Running
Let’s take a look at some of the benefits you’ll enjoy if you do.
1. Stronger Muscles
By running without shoes, your feet, legs, and entire core make some adjustments. Proper barefoot running technique may help strengthen your foot muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Consequently, you may develop a more natural gait.
2. Healthier Tendons
Since shoes provide some form of a heel lift, running barefoot can stretch out and strengthen your Achilles tendons and calf muscles by tossing the shoes. Such adjustments help you reduce potential injuries, including Achilles tendinitis calf strains.
3. Enhanced Heel Strike
If you practice consistent barefoot running techniques, you will begin to land on your forefoot and not your heel. As researchers have noted, barefoot runners tend to land on their forefoot or midfoot.
This is ideal.
Runners began landing on their heels when running shoes began offering padding and resistance. However, the most effective natural running stride is to land on your midfoot or forefoot, helping arches absorb shocks.
4. Improved Balance
Running barefoot may also boost balance and improve your proprioception (perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body).
In general, going barefoot activates your smaller muscles in your ankles, feet, legs, and hips that help with balance and coordination.
5. Stay Grounded
Once you’ve improved this balance, your body will adjust to maintaining a more efficient stride and contact with the ground.
By spreading your toes and expanding your foot, you create a more solid foundation to support your body’s movements.
In fact, studies have shown that barefoot running means shorter contact time with ground, smaller stride lengths, and higher stride frequency. This means fewer chances to damage the intricate muscles in your foot.
So, Is Running Barefoot Worth It?
Ultimately, even though running barefoot may put initial strain on your bones and it may take months for your body to build up the muscle strength of your feet and ankle, don’t be discouraged.
Running barefoot offers an entirely new scope of muscle refinement that you lose with shoes, so it’s definitely worth exploring.
How to Begin Barefoot Running Technique Training
As I just touched on, even though barefoot running can offer a lot of benefits, it’s also going to be a big change. You need to be careful about making this adjustment to your typical running practice or you may end up regretting your decision.
So, if you’re interested in starting or experimenting with barefoot running, consider these five tips for a safe transition.
Maintain a Low Mileage
Don’t start with too much too fast. Considering that you have supported your feet with shoes your entire life, you cannot expect to run eight miles barefoot right out of the gate.
Even if you’re a seasoned runner, you want to start your new barefoot running journey slowly and methodically.
Consider walking barefoot in your home for a few days, or even take a light jog for ¼ mile. After a day or two, monitor any pain in your calves or feet. While some calf and arch soreness is to be expected, you may also experience pain on the top of your foot if you overdo it at the beginning.
Even if you have transitioned from a regular running shoe to a more minimalist shoe, do not mistake your experience with these minimalist shoes for running barefoot.
Despite minimalist shoes offering some sense of comfort, such comfort can be misleading, as you are more susceptible to overdoing your mileage or injuring yourself.
Your running will progress faster and more efficiently if you begin your journey completely barefoot because of the feedback your soles will provide. That said, I know minimalist shoes have become very popular in recent years, so I’ll cover them in more detail in the next section.
Begin on a Hard Surface
Even though you may be inclined to start running barefoot on grass, I think you’re better off avoiding it. Because grass surfaces are often uneven, you could roll your ankle or, worse, step on a rock or other object that would sideline you for a while.
Instead, I recommend you run on concrete or hard-packed sand. Doing so offers a couple of benefits.
For one, hard surfaces help you visualize how you are landing. In sand, for instance, your footprints can show you how you are pushing off. To avoid blisters over long distances, you should maintain light and uniform footprints, being sure your toes are not digging into the sand.
Additionally, you can see if your heel print is deeper than the forefoot. If so, you risk heel striking, which can damage your joints and potentially lead to injury.
Take Silent Runs
If you’re not running on sand, then consider the benefits of running on concrete or asphalt.
For one, you can more easily see the entire surface and avoid any potential threats that grass may be hiding.
Additionally, you can more attentively work on landing softly and quietly, taking note of that thudding sound you hear and feel throughout your body and especially in your joints.
If silent strolls seem too mundane, you can try to make a game out of your journey by running so quietly that even fellow runners or local wildlife do not notice you.
While running barefoot will certainly set you apart from other runners you pass, don’t assume that people are staring and judging you behind your back.
Sure, some people may give you weird looks, but the majority of people won’t notice. Most of those who do will be positive and may even want to know more about your barefoot running.
How to (Safely) Begin Barefoot Running
While it’s important to foster your running techniques and relish your newfound barefoot running, making sure you do these things safely should be the biggest priority. Take the transition slow and listen to your body. Don’t push yourself if you’re feeling any adverse effects.
Prepare for Sore Calves (But Keep Going)
One of the initial hurdles you’ll have to overcome is sore calves.
Experienced runners will more than likely notice a soreness in their legs and calves after the first time they run a couple of miles - even with proper barefoot running technique.
Don’t be discouraged by this. Whether you wait a few days to try barefoot running again, or simply go for a run in your regular shoes, you should not wait too long before you try it again though.
Step Up Your Cadence
One of the most important ways to improve your running is to focus on your running cadence. The number of steps per minute (SPM) you take will affect not just how fast you run but how efficient and safe those strides are, too.
With barefoot running, quicker, shorter strides will help you reduce the impact on your lower legs.
Longer strides are more challenging when you’re barefoot, so it’s best to stick to a higher cadence by keeping those strides shorter.
Stay on Pace
Another challenge you may face is knowing how to pace yourself as you grow accustomed to your new barefoot running technique.
While you may be tempted to run the pace you normally would with shoes, you will need to slow down for barefoot running.
Since barefoot running is not meant to drastically enhance your aerobic fitness, strictly relying on your running times as a marker for success isn’t a good idea.
Your goal is to become more efficient, stronger, and less susceptible to injury, so don’t overthink pace. Do what feels comfortable. Don’t hold yourself to the same times you run when wearing shoes.
Should You Wear Barefoot Running Shoes?
If you’re not sure you’re ready to commit to 100% barefoot running just yet, you do have another option: a minimalist shoe.
But is this the right approach for you?
The obvious advantage over barefoot running is that you have an added layer of support and safety from direct contact with the elements.
But just like with barefoot running, you need to transition slowly and learn new techniques that are safe and effective for this different style.
If you do, you’ll enjoy some added perks.
Studies suggest that wearing a minimalist shoe can help strengthen your calves and some stabilizing muscles in your feet. And compared to those who use conventional shoes, runners also improved their plantar flexor strength.
However, how you train and how you run will ultimately determine any results you see, so whether you run barefoot or with a minimalist shoe, technique matters more than footwear.
If you continue to land on the forefoot or midfoot, for instance, you can tap into the complex network of muscles with plantar flexion, helping your feet grow stronger.
But as studies have noted, there is a limit to these gains.
If you want to benefit the most from wearing minimalist shoes, you should only use them 35% of the time. There’s no data to suggest that transitioning fully to minimalist shoes will add any extra benefits.
In fact, you risk stressing your ankle and metatarsals when using minimalist shoes on a consistent basis, so moderation and pacing are key.
If you do decide to make the jump to minimalist shoes, slowly work them into your shoe rotation - but do not transition to them fully. As I mentioned earlier, they’re no substitute for running 100% barefoot.
Ultimately, if you feel minimalist shoes will help you with this transition or you want them for running particularly rough terrain, go right ahead. Just be sure that you’re focusing on technique and moderation while switching over to them and, above all else, listen to your feet and body.
How Long Does It Take to Get Used to Barefoot Running?
There’s no specific science or step-by-step guide that can predict how long it will take your body to become accustomed to barefoot running.
If your running technique already implements some (or most) of the running techniques I noted above, this takes no time at all. For others, it will take longer since they need to learn a new skill.
Once again, you’ll want to pay attention to your body and get comfortable with not rushing the process. You must build up gradually to give your feet a chance to change (more on that in a bit) and your body time to adjust.
At the end of the day, getting used to running barefoot is largely going to take as long as you make it. The more often you go out for barefoot runs (following the advice we’ve covered), the sooner you’ll feel comfortable doing it.
Still, here are some other tips that I’ve found effective.
For starters, do not forget to stretch, stretch, stretch!
This is both for safety and stamina reasons.
Find a staircase or some raised surface after your barefoot running session to use for a great calf stretch. Be sure only to stretch one foot at time - carefully - to avoid overdoing it.
Once you’ve started barefoot running in earnest, you can add some preparatory and supplementary activities, like Pilates and core exercises to your everyday stretching routine. Adding such steps helps both your body’s core and your feet to undergo the necessary changes, guiding your body to a faster grasp of barefoot running techniques.
Regarding your steps, if you avoid landing too much on your toes (which strains the calves) and can keep yourself from heel striking, then your calf soreness should disappear within a few weeks.
Additionally, focusing your attention on your running style helps your feet and body start transforming to facilitate a fuller transition.
For instance, by focusing on shorter strides with your cadence and by leaning forward from the angles and not the waist, you can physically transform your feet by building up arch strength and raising your arch.
Ultimately, adherence to the safety steps I’ve covered above - including proper stretching - is imperative. But almost equally imperative is your comfort with knowing the transition can take some time before you feel comfortable running barefoot.
Taking the Next (Barefoot) Step
Whether you currently run five miles a day or are just now beginning your running journey, consider giving barefoot running a shot.
Start slow and let your body (and mind) adjust. Take note of running techniques I’ve mentioned above.
If you do, you may just find that you’ve found your next favorite activity.
Trust your body.
Trust the process.
And run wild.