Barefoot Running Technique: Running Form for Minimalist Running
Traditionally, runners have turned to 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.
What’s the alternative?
Running around barefoot?
Well, actually, yes.
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 this unique approach to running in order to get started on the right (bare) foot.
Why Are Runners Ditching Conventional Running Shoes?
First, let’s quickly cover why anyone would want to hit the trails barefoot when they could put on a fancy pair of running shoes instead.
In short, the main idea is that conventional running shoes cause too much interference between your feet and the ground. Proponents of this type of minimalist running believe that this type of interference causes all kinds of biomechanical problems throughout the rest of the body.
For example, many shoe brands add thick heels to their products. The idea is that this extra padding protects your heel when you run.
But people who prefer to run barefoot think that this extra protection comes at the cost of tricking your body into an unnatural form of movement, like landing heel first. This is something these proponents of the barefoot approach believe to be unnatural. They believe that the evidence supports “forefoot running”, which is easier to achieve when you’re barefoot.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these potential benefits.
1. Running Barefoot May Produce Stronger Muscles
By running without shoes, your feet, legs, and entire core make some adjustments. As a result, proper barefoot running technique may help strengthen your foot muscles, ligaments, and tendons. This may lead to a more natural form of movement, which could result in stronger muscles.
This makes sense when you think about it. The very manufacturers behind most running shoes are fond of boasting about all the features they add to stand between your barefoot and the ground beneath it. But this also means limiting the amount of work the wearer’s muscles need to do.
Runners who ditch their shoes need stronger muscles to help navigate the ground beneath them. So, while you’ll need to work on a new running form, the result could be a much healthier body.
2. …And Burn More Calories
Choosing to run barefoot or in minimalist shoes can significantly increase calorie burn compared to using heavily cushioned and springy running shoes. When you run in shoes designed to propel you forward, it should come as no surprise that they end up doing a substantial amount of the work for you.
However, with minimalist footwear (or none at all), there's no built-in spring mechanism. Your natural body movements are the propeller. Every step demands a bit more effort, especially during the crucial toe-off phase, requiring the same energy as the initial foot-to-ground contact.
This increased effort engages your muscles more intensely, turning each stride into a calorie-burning opportunity. In essence, the absence of shoe-induced assistance means more work for your muscles, translating to a higher calorie expenditure during your barefoot sessions.
3. Barefoot Running May Create Healthier Tendons, Too
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. Just like losing the extra features can help build muscles in your legs, losing that added support forces your tendons and muscles to stretch.
Even better, these adjustments can help to reduce the likelihood of injuries, including common ones like Achilles tendinitis calf strains.
4. Less Heel Strike
If you practice consistent barefoot 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.
5. 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.
6. Better Overall Biometrics
Running in your bare feet allows a heightened focus on proper landing techniques, encouraging a landing on the front or middle part of the foot. The awareness cultivated during each barefoot stride facilitates a more precise understanding of foot-to-ground interaction.
Traditional running shoes can unknowingly disrupt your natural gait, leaving your foot unsupported and susceptible to inflammation of the fascia—a condition that can halt your running progress and linger for weeks. The root cause often lies in poorly fitted orthotics, inadequate support for high arches, or the strain experienced by flat feet. By contrast, when you run barefoot, you’re promoting a more natural and biomechanically sound gait, aligning your body with its inherent design. This not only minimizes the risk of fascial inflammation but also contributes to overall better biomechanics, making barefoot running a holistic and beneficial choice for runners seeking improved foot health and biometric alignment.
In fact, studies have shown that when your feet aren’t in shoes, you make shorter contact time with ground, smaller stride lengths, and higher stride frequency. This means fewer chances to damage the intricate muscles in your foot.
7. Save Money
Running barefoot not only offers health benefits but also proves to be a budget-friendly choice. The traditional notion of running without shoes may seem unconventional in today's world of specialized footwear, but as running in bare feet gains popularity, its economic advantages become evident. Unlike investing in expensive running shoes, going barefoot incurs no additional cost. The need for high-end footwear is eliminated, making it an accessible option for those on a budget.
Furthermore, the simplicity of running in bare feet aligns with financial savings. No need for pricy shoe replacements or the latest running gear – just the freedom of feeling the earth beneath your feet. However, it's essential to choose suitable running surfaces, favoring softer terrains like grass or dirt. This not only enhances the barefoot experience but also ensures longevity by avoiding wear and tear on your soles. In essence, running barefoot becomes a cost-effective and sustainable approach, providing a fulfilling running experience without breaking the bank.
Of course, you may decide to wear “barefoot shoes”, which will still give you many of the benefits that come from running in bare feet but with a little added protection. We’ll talk about that more in a bit.
4 Drawbacks to Barefoot Running
With all that being said, there are also some potential problems that may arise from running without shoes on. So, while the popularity of this minimalist approach continues to grow, here are four reasons many people stick with traditional running shoes.
1. Altered Running Form
One notable drawback of barefoot running is the development of a different running gait and musculature compared to traditional running with cushioned shoes. Habitual use of cushioned shoes leads to a specific set of alignments and muscle engagement. However, when transitioning to running in your bare feet, individuals often experience a shift in their running patterns, potentially leading to discomfort and muscle strain as the body adapts to a new way of moving.
2. Possible Increased Risk of Injuries
The rapid transition to running in bare feet has been associated with an uptick in injuries, as reported by doctors in the U.S. Common injuries include pulled calf muscles, Achilles tendinitis, and metatarsal stress fractures.
The disparity in running mechanics between traditional and barefoot running can put excessive stress on the feet, especially when the transition is not gradual. This emphasizes the importance of a careful and gradual approach when adopting barefoot running to minimize the risk of injuries.
3. Blisters and Calluses (Especially on Your Forefoot)
A universal challenge faced by those running in bare feet is the initial battle with blisters. The shift to minimalist shoes or running shoeless often results in friction-related skin issues until calluses are formed. While calluses eventually provide protection, the initial discomfort can deter some individuals from persisting with barefoot running. This underscores the need for patience during the transition period.
4. Overuse Injuries and Strain on Achilles Tendon
The forefoot or midsole striking encouraged by many minimalist shoes places additional strain on the Achilles tendon. This can lead to overuse injuries such as calf strain, soreness, plantar fasciitis, and Achilles tendinitis.
While retraining to land on the forefoot can reduce common injuries to the hamstring, plantar fascia, and knee, it's essential to be mindful of the potential increase in injuries related to the Achilles tendon and calf.
Vary Your Workouts to Ease the Transition Process
To mitigate the risk of injuries during the transition to running in bare feet, doctors recommend incorporating a variety of running workouts. This variation helps the body adapt gradually, reducing the likelihood of stress-related injuries.
Adding different types of workouts can also contribute to overall athletic performance and injury prevention, emphasizing the importance of a holistic approach to training when embracing barefoot running.
How to Run Barefoot – A Quick Guide to the Right Technique
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 running in bare feet, consider these five tips for a safe transition.
1. Focus on Landing Forefoot First
As we covered earlier, forefoot running is a key technique when it comes to barefoot running, but it differs greatly from the traditional “heel strike”
When you start this new approach, focus your weight on the balls of your feet and toes, avoiding heel strikes between steps. Adopt a slight forward bend in your upper body from the hips. While maintaining this position for an entire run could lead to tightness, the forefoot style serves as a powerful tool for speed bursts, perfect for sprinting finishes or conquering short hills. It's akin to a gas pedal, propelling you towards your goals.
There are various ways to execute a forefoot strike:
- Toe to Heel Running: Land on your forefoot, allowing the rest of your foot to collapse before taking off.
- Balls of Feet Running: Land on the balls of your feet, sometimes maintaining this position throughout.
- Toe-Only Running: Land on your toes, avoiding heel contact before the next takeoff.
2. Begin Barefoot Before Trying Minimalist Shoes
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.
3. 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 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.
4. Start 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.
5. …and Any Other Aches and Pains from This New Movement
Your daily running routine may be a relaxing five miles or more, but attempting a two-mile run with proper barefoot technique can be a game-changer. Be prepared for the aftermath – the next day might feel like you conquered a stair-climbing marathon with intense soreness in your calves. Take a break for a couple of days, then decide whether to give running in bare feet another shot or opt for your regular running shoes. Just don't let too much time pass before your next attempt.
In my experience, it took approximately three weeks and about 10 barefoot runs for my calf muscles to adjust and strengthen sufficiently, eliminating the overwhelming soreness the following day. Keep in mind that jogging without shoes involves literally springing off the ground on the ball of your foot, a more natural and gentle motion that significantly engages your calf muscles. So, while it might initially leave you feeling like you've challenged those muscles intensely, the adaptation process brings about a positive change over time.
6. If You Ditch Running Shoes, Take Care of Your Feet
Finally, if you’re going to run barefoot, you absolutely must take care of your feet.
Short toenails and proper care for cuts and blisters are fundamental practices to prevent discomfort, infections, and even serious injuries.
After your run, it’s crucial that you wash and moisturize your feet to maintain skin health and overall foot hygiene. Though it’s best to begin running barefoot at first, consider minimalist shoes if they’re necessary to provide your feet with a protective layer. This can be especially helpful if you’re on the heavier side, as the additional heft can lead to problems when your feet are making direct contact with the ground.
Again, listen to your body. If new pain or injuries arise during barefoot running, it's essential to take a break and reassess your approach. Prioritizing foot care not only enhances the experience but also safeguards against potential complications, ensuring a sustainable and enjoyable journey for your feet and overall wellbeing.
Choosing the Right Stride for Running Barefoot
Transitioning to jogging without shoes involves a shift from aggressively propelling forward off the heels to springing up from the toes. Initial adjustments may result in a temporary decrease in speed, requiring patience and mindful tracking of mileage and pace. It's advised to expect a slower pace initially, perhaps dropping from a seven-minute mile to eight or even nine minutes. This will give your body the time required to adapt to this new technique and engage different muscle groups, notably the calves.
Monitoring the pace differential between traditional and barefoot running provides valuable insights, guiding the gradual return to previous speeds over several months. Rushing this process risks injury or compromised form. The uphill climb of transitioning to jogging without shoes, marked by altered technique and muscle engagement, eventually leads to a surpassing of previous speeds. Once immersed in the barefoot experience, the benefits become apparent, making a return to traditional shoes a challenging thought.
Choose Minimalist Shoes That Support Your New Running Form
As we’ve covered before, running barefoot may not always be practical, but you can still reap many of the benefits by wearing “minimalist shoes” that don’t have all of the bells and whistles that come with conventional options. Most notably, they lack the elevated heels that you find in most of today’s running shoes. That’s why you may also hear them referred to as “zero-drop” shoes. There is no “drop” from the heel to the toe.
If you want help getting started with considering all of your options for these shoes, here’s a list that will help:
Those are just some of the most popular shoes on the market, but they’re hardly your only options. More and more brands are creating running shoes for minimalist runners and other athletes who want to feel the ground below their feet without wearing the typical shoes they’ve gotten used to over the years.
Get Started with These Techniques and Let Us Know What You Think
If you’ve become one of the many runners who has decided to take the barefoot approach, please keep the above advice in mind. Take the process slow and pay attention to how your body reacts to making direct contact with the ground.
While it probably seems obvious that moving around barefoot without shoes on will affect your feet, listen to the rest of your body, too. We mentioned how barefoot movement can affect your calves, but your knees and hips may be a bit uncomfortable at first, too.
You’ll most likely want to refine your form over time, as well. This will probably involve modifying the size of your stride and even how you move your arms. There’s no wrong or right form when ditching shoes, so keep making small change until you feel great (before and after your run).
Of course, you may also decide that buying a pair of “barefoot shoes” makes a big difference for feeling this level of comfort. Plenty of runners have done the same and found that the results for their overall form have been worth it.
Lastly, let us know how you like the change. If you have any recommendations about improving your running form, what running shoes are best for this minimalist approach, or anything else about the barefoot technique, let us know in the comments below.