Barefoot running is no longer considered strange science. Just last week I passed a barefoot runner and instantly pointed out to my husband how exciting it is to see a running purist. It was as if I’d seen a lemur in the wild.
Barefoot running is an intriguing practice and more people are growing curious about it. But most often they want to know if it’s safe for everyone.
There are many proposed benefits of barefoot running, the most prominent being it allows you to feel more connected to the ground, helps you stay more in tune with your body and prevent injuries, and strengthens your feet.
Though no one “invented” barefoot running, there was a surge of interest in the practice in the late 90s and early 2000s as running experts began seeking out running in its purest form.
Around the same time shoe maker Vibram started producing their minimalist running shoes, which have since attracted a small army of loyal barefoot running believers that swear by the brand. New Balance has also partnered with Vibram to produce a minimalist style running shoe without the “glove-like” slots for a runner’s toes.
Beyond barefoot running shoes, there are those elite few who go without shoes altogether – running on the beach, trails and even rocky pavement in the name of true, honest running. However, because our culture has become so conditioned to the idea that we “need” shoes in order to to run, making the shift to minimalist running shoes or going barefoot is quite the mental and physical shift.
Minimalist and life blogger Leo Babauta likened running with shoes to having your neck in a cast for a month. “When you take the cast off, your neck muscles will be weak,” he explained. “You also pound your feet much harder with running shoes, causing problems not only with feet but knees and other joints.”
This being said, when you remove your thick running shoes, you remove that barrier that lets you directly “communicate” with the ground. This might sound like a good thing, however, if the transition isn’t a slow one it can prove to be quite dangerous in the long run.
For this reason, Babauta – a barefoot runner himself – contends that starting slow is the best and only approach. Else, you’re likely end up paying for it with injuries. “We’re making our feet weak [with running shoes], and pounding them hard – it’s no wonder we have all kinds of injuries,” he said.
In his guide to barefoot running, Babauta explains that “barefoot running is about connecting with the ground, about feeling, about freedom and lightness, about fun.” One thing he says it’s not about? Speed.
Taking it Slow
Longtime barefoot runner and blogger, Jessica Porter, agrees with Babauta. “The best advice I have is start slow,” she said in a guest article on Rowdy Kittens. “Take off your shoes and walk around the house barefoot for a few weeks. Mix it up by walking in grass, gravel, and over concrete to get your feet used to different surfaces. Let your foot muscles build up over time.”
Most importantly, perhaps, Porter recommends listening to your body. “If it hurts, stop and adjust your form. Take rest days. It’s like learning to walk again.”
“Shoes are the foundation to your body. People don’t realize how much shoes influence how your body moves. The transition from traditional running shoes to minimal styles is a very drastic and major shift for any runner,” she explained. “It’s really important to gradually introduce this new kind of shoe beginning with just a few minutes of running in the shoe a few times per week. You absolutely cannot go out for a regular long run in your new shoes. It can take six months to a year to fully adjust to the new foot position.”
Perkins explains that with barefoot running, your foot is now moving in a very different way than it was before and this places new stress and stain on the foot, ankle and lower leg. This is why she stresses the importance of allowing time for your body to learn this new positioning.
“Ultimately, the benefit of minimal running shoes comes down to running technique. A shoe is not going to change your running life – you must also adopt specific running mechanics otherwise you will get injured. If you can learn better mechanics and become a different runner, barefoot style running can be immensely beneficial.”
Perkins recommends this helpful video by Playmakers on proper running as a good place to start.
In short, Perkins would argue that barefoot running is not for everyone and that you must be responsible and commit to optimizing your running mechanics, otherwise you face a high risk of injury. “In the end, I’m a huge fan of minimal shoes and proper running technique,” she said. “Unfortunately, I believe that most folks are not up to the commitment necessary to make the shoe’s technology work.”
Any lingering questions we had about barefoot running before our research began are now answered. As a result, we’ve concluded that barefoot running is an amazing and beneficial practice, but that it’s probably not for everyone. However, if someone does decide to give barefoot a go, they should do so slowly and wisely to enjoy it more fully and safely over the course of their running career.