Running is a great way to stay heart-healthy and keep yourself active. Running without shoes isn’t something I’ve ever done, although I have walked without shoes. If you’ve been running in minimalist shoes for a while, you might be wondering about running barefoot.
Running without shoes may not be any better at helping you avoid injury, but it may strengthen your foot muscles more, resulting in certain benefits. Unfortunately, scientific studies haven’t given a definitive answer. Some individuals claim running without shoes is better, although many disagree.
We’ll discuss why you might want to run without shoes and why you may not want to. There are a lot of factors for each person to consider before running barefoot, but for some, I think it’s a good idea.
How Can Running Barefoot Benefit You?
The simple fact is that barefoot running can be beneficial for those willing to take the time (maybe years) to transition to running barefoot. Yet this doesn’t preclude that they will never get injured, but some people have experienced less injury.
I see the benefits as coming mainly from two things. One, form, and two, tendon and muscle development.
1. Running Form
Barefoot running helps people land on their forefoot and midfoot, helping people reduce the number of injuries they receive. However, those who push too hard or transition to barefoot running too quickly are likely to continue to receive injuries.
There are too many variables to be certain why injuries occur, and even long-time barefoot runners receive injuries. The exciting thing is some people have found they no longer have running injuries after they transition to barefoot running.
Science suggests that how fast we are running and the way we land will determine how much force is applied to our foot and leg. If you are running with a forefoot strike, this can lower impact, and your calf muscles and Achilles Tendon will take most of that force. (outsideonline.com)
Some people’s findings suggest this may be the reason barefoot running is better.
If you transition slowly enough to barefoot running and strengthen the calf muscle, foot muscles, and tendons, you are less likely to get injured. Likewise, if you ensure you’re stretching well and land on your forefoot, you may likely reduce injuries while running.
Yet, this can apply to shoed runners as well, although muscle development may not be evident depending on the shoes they wear.
At times you will land on your midfoot while barefoot running. However, over time you can gain enough strength to absorb impacts well through your arch, have better stability through your toes, and will likely develop a more stable wider foot.
This means your foot and leg can work well to absorb impacts, and your running form may help you reduce impacts better.
However, if you are running fast, these impacts will be sharper, and if you haven’t trained to run fast over time, you’ll likely get an injury at some point.
So form, while helpful for barefoot running, can only achieve so much. So I would make sure I was running slow and steady as a barefoot runner and transition slowly.
If you are a barefoot runner, you may encounter a calf or Achilles Tendon injury at some point because of your running form. However, shoed runners tend to get other injuries more often.
However, it seems to me that a stronger leg and foot and the gentler running form of a barefoot runner can help reduce injuries in general.
Later we’ll talk more about running surfaces and how that may increase or decrease injuries.
Many factors may lead to injury or the avoidance of them. My own experience running has been that if I run at a regular, consistent pace, I don’t get injuries, and I think this goes for barefoot or shoed runners.
I have run in thick, cushioned, heeled running shoes and thin, cushioned, zero-drop running shoes. There was a transition period when I was changing to zero-drop shoes, where my calf muscles worked more and felt tighter after runs.
I could tell my form was different because my calf muscles were tight after runs for a couple of weeks. I believe I would have gotten an injury if I tried to run too much or didn’t stretch after my runs.
I think it’s important to recognize that scientific studies can’t always determine why barefoot running might work great for some and not for others. They can only give general statements about certain groups of people or sets of data.
An article from painscience.com talks about how barefoot running still needs a lot more science to make an accurate determination that it is helpful.
In my opinion, a long and careful transition over to barefoot running is needed. And even after that, care needs to be taken to run without injury.
Yet, I think it is a worthy goal for many people because it may benefit them.
2. Natural Biomechanical Benefits Of Barefoot Running
Muscle and tendons naturally develop when walking and running barefoot. The arch gets stronger, the toes articulate better, and better balance often results.
While there are studies that show feet develop muscles while running barefoot, this can also happen while wearing some types of shoes. Conversely, there are also many indicators that wearing shoes leads to the loss of muscle development.
When I went to REI to buy some hiking shoes, I remember the salesperson stating the shoes do the work for you. This is the case for many running shoes. The thick foam midsoles help you absorb much of the impact, so your foot doesn’t have to.
Your average shoe isn’t made to help with foot muscle development, and people often find that their arch starts to collapse with excess weight and not enough use of their foot muscles.
The nice thing about muscles is that we can develop weak ones and get stronger. After only 8 weeks, one group of people showed increased muscle development in their feet due to walking in minimalist shoes. (sciencealert.com)
It’s clear to me that running barefoot helps develop your muscles in the foot and muscles. Doing this too fast can lead to injuries. (blogs.scientificamerican.com) Yet, I think it’s a good idea for everyone to have stronger foot muscles, even if they are wearing shoes during their run.
Everyone is different, and the stress we put our muscles and tendons under will affect how well we run. This video discusses how the use of muscles and tendons determines tendon strength.
Sometimes I feel that barefoot running is better, depending on the circumstances. Feet are supposed to move in a natural biomechanical manner to function as they are designed. Yet, wearing shoes can prevent natural movement.
Barefoot running uses natural movements of the foot and leg for the most part. We can always change how we land, but most people naturally land on the forefoot when running barefoot. These natural movements develop and strengthen muscles and tendons.
In a study done on barefoot running in 2015, they found that there were fewer injuries, but they ran less than the other group that had shoes on. (pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
I think the ultimate goal would be to run without injuries. I believe both barefoot and the shoed runner can accomplish this, though barefoot running can give you the added benefit of the natural foot muscle development that occurs while running.
Is muscle and tendon development from barefoot running all that important? I believe that it may depend on why you run.
Suppose you are a runner who wants to run barefoot because you want to develop more natural biomechanical movements, stronger tendons, and muscle strength as a result. In that case, I think barefoot running is a good option for you.
I say this because your goal is not to go fast or win a race but to get healthy and run naturally. This means you can take your time to be cautious and transition to barefoot running slowly, and develop your running skills.
If you are a runner who wants to run fast and enter marathons, then I don’t think barefoot running is not a sustainable goal in the short term. You are running naturally on an unnatural surface, maybe at an unnatural pace, and for an extended amount of time beyond your regular routine.
In my opinion, years of training are needed for healthy barefoot running. Hard surfaces are harsh on your feet and legs. Some cushioning may be best suited for these situations unless you are a super-disciplined runner who doesn’t lose form or get tired.
Running long distances is a great way to test yourself and obtain a sense of accomplishment. Finishing a marathon gives you a sense of pride, but I’m not sure if that should be the goal of the barefoot runner. Why?
The running surface is why, in my opinion, the barefoot runner’s goal should be to run for a better and healthier body.
If you are running barefoot on cement and asphalt, that’s not natural, so your foot will be impacted differently than if you were running on dirt or grass.
Unless you have been running barefoot for many years, your tendons may not be strong enough or thick enough to sustain the stresses of long-distance running.
Cushioned shoes are great for long-distance running to reduce impact. Yet, shoes lessen the level of natural foot movement. So what’s the best option?
Maybe both. Transitioning to barefoot, running slowly, and developing tendons and natural foot strength. Running barefoot on the natural ground if possible (the beach) and for shorter distances when in the city.
When the occasion calls for it, such as a marathon, maybe using cushioned zero-drop shoes to run in could be what barefoot runners can do to prevent injury. Of course, you would need to get used to both types of running.
If we were meant to run and walk barefoot, it seems to me that we were meant to do it in a natural setting. “Concrete is 10 times harder than asphalt.” (marathontrainingacademy.com)
Dirt is softer than asphalt, and sand is often softer than dirt. So, I believe barefoot runner should try their best to run on softer surfaces that are natural because not too long ago, barefoot runners didn’t have any asphalt or concrete to run on for long distances.
So what should I do if I want to run barefoot in the city?
Barefoot runners can run in the city, but I don’t think that it’s for everyone. I weigh 180+ pounds and feel like barefoot running might be too much for me unless I lose some weight and do enough training.
Lighter barefoot runners might do better in the city if they have developed the foot and leg structures needed for these hard surfaces. Yet, I feel shorter distances are best in your first year or two.
I think the overall idea I’ve learned over the years is that if you’re not really prepared for any kind of running, don’t do it.
Get prepared and take your time. The rush to get it done quickly seems to be the one indicator that results in injuries most of all, and these are likely 100% preventable.
Why Should I Run Barefoot?
You have to be ready to change your feet to be a barefoot runner. You will need to buy wider shoes when you wear them and get used to calluses on your feet.
Your feet muscles will likely hurt more and your calves after running, but they won’t get injured if you transition slowly enough and remember to stretch. (See stretch feet)
You may find that the shoes you like might not fit comfortably anymore. However, your toes will be able to do things that they could before and articulate a bit like your fingers.
These changes may not be exactly why you wanted to run barefoot, but it means your feet are changing and getting stronger. You have adapted to having a natural foot.
A natural foot is a healthy foot, and it comes with benefits. You do things you weren’t able to before. Like a child who is learning to use their hands, you are learning to use your feet.
Some of the benefits of running barefoot are:
- Your arch can now absorb more impact.
- Your toes can spread and grab the ground for better balance.
- Your foot gets wider for better control when running.
- Your brain receives more feedback from your feet, likely improving your running form and telling the arch to activate properly during foot strikes.
- Your foot moves in a more natural biomechanical manner and those natural running muscles get stronger.
- Awareness of your body, foot position, and of the running surface.
- You run more efficiently, expending less energy. Less up and down movement and tendons help with taking some of the force.
When Should I Avoid Running Barefoot?
Running barefoot isn’t for everyone. I might try it one day but will transition slowly over by walking barefoot first and then running short distances, like a beginning runner.
You can expect to do much barefoot running until you have had lots and lots of time to get your feet and legs ready by transitioning slowly.
If I wanted to continue to do it more often, I would consider losing some weight and taking it slow.
I think those who live in the city should consider avoiding barefoot running if you are running long distances because that doesn’t seem to be the best environment for this type of running.
Reasons to avoid barefoot running can be:
- You want to race barefoot in a marathon soon but have little experience running barefoot.
- You are overweight.
- Your feet are not very strong or calloused.
- You can only run on concrete and asphalt.
- You always like to run fast.
- You don’t usually stretch. (Some barefoot runners find they need to stretch less, but at the beginning, you will need to make sure you stretch completely each run.)
Monitoring Your Barefoot Running
I think it’s important to monitor your progress over time and evaluate your form, tendon development, and foot health.
One way you can check your progress is to video yourself and then slow down the recording to see how you are landing while running barefoot. You can also do a physical check.
Monitoring the following items can show how you are progressing.
- Check to see if you are landing on your forefoot.
- Check to see if your time in contact with the ground is getting short versus running with shoes.
- Check your Achilles tendon over time. It should lengthen a bit and get stronger.
- Check that your callouses are developing and that your foot is healthy.
- Check your muscles are loose with no knots.
- Check your arch. Your arch may get more pronounced for some individuals.
If you’ve been running for a while, you may be able to transition to barefoot running much easier than someone new to running.
The structures that develop when barefoot running need time to grow and adjust. Each person will be different. You’ll need to decide with your doctor, physical therapist, or personal trainer what’s best for you.
There’s a lot of research that tells us that running without shoes can be beneficial, yet there are so many variables and other research that tell us we need to be careful.
My own conclusion is that runners who do want to run barefoot need to transition very slowly, so they can develop the natural structures that will aid them when running barefoot.
Running better without shoes is a great goal to have, and making sure you take precautions can help you more safely gain the benefits that barefoot running gives you.
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