Seriously, What the Hell?
Barefoot running is a fad that grew, fell and has risen again in the last few years. It is, of course, as its name suggests, running barefoot. The next question after this is usually: Why?
It’s a reasonable question.
City runners accustomed to hard and sometimes jagged concrete and asphalt exercises, or scenic runners on trails with thorny patches and fallen twigs and branches might envision running barefoot with a cringe.
Yet, it’s not entirely a surprise to see. As Mixed Martial Arts has increased in popularity, we’ve seen fighters (and even professional wrestlers) in their bare feet. The claim is that your balance, proprioception, and grip on the mat is better while barefoot. However, just as many people can attest that the risk of injury increases without the added protection of a boot.
However, despite being a new fad, barefoot running is not only controversial but also riddled with a confusing web of contradicting facts. Here, we’re going to work through this surprisingly confusing topic, and answer the questions surrounding it with clarity, especially the question of Why?
It’s the Shoe’s Fault
Proponents of barefoot running point to the most obvious: running barefoot is natural. And, admittedly, there are the problems of shoes themselves. The extra weight and alteration of footwork while running can make running itself more uncomfortable. Running in the wrong shoes can be hell on the knees and ankles. That pulling sensation and the restriction of movement can be uncomfortable in the least and hazardous at the most. In that way, running barefoot is indeed more natural, making your stride more natural in the process.
There is truth to the claim that our footwork is different while wearing shoes. Runners tend to land on the heel of their feet and with greater force. Long-term wear and tear can lead to damage of the Achilles tendon and bone fractures. The added weight of shoes leads to greater exertion and increased oxygen requirements.
The support that shoes provide is damaging for the foot; supported muscles don’t grow. The theory here is that the more barefoot running you do, the better for the foot; it will adapt to the possible stressor and dangers of jagged pebbles, treacherous terrain, and harsh concrete. In the end, barefoot running will allow you to grow callous to these impediments, and your footwork will not only be stronger, but more natural too.
Claims of Greater Footwork (Bones and Balance)
Barefoot runners notice a change in footwork once they ditch their shoes. The lack of support ensures that the calves, hips, and feet will need to renegotiate how they work while running. To accommodate the physical change, it is likely that rather than striking down on the heel during a run, you will (consciously or not) land on the fore or midfoot. This means a great deal of adaptation will likely be required.
Advanced runners may be averse to this, as this adaptation time is, in some cases, like re-learning how to run again. You’ll need to learn to walk before you can run (metaphorically and literally).
Barefoot runners claim a change in stride. A study done by Squadrone and Gallozzi found that strides increased while ground contact time decreased in barefoot running. The study suggested that speed and endurance are a major benefit to be found in this style of exercise.
Another benefit is an increased balance. Shoes provide an artificial balance, leaving the muscles of the foot responsible for natural balance unused. Barefoot running would exercise those muscles; in turn, your balance would be more natural and much stronger. Rather than balancing by the shape of your shoe, you’re balancing on your natural curve.
Common Misconceptions and Overpromising
Remember when I said barefoot running was a fad that came and went quickly only to return again suddenly? Well, the reason for that quick decline was partially due to overpromising and generalizing progress.
The Squadrone and Gallozzi study has proven to be rather controversial, as more runners and associated podiatrists have questioned its validity. Excitable preachers claimed that once we’re removed from the oppressive shackles of our shoes we would adopt a new running stride. Our feet will correct themselves and our runs will be more fluid. Strides would increase with speed and endurance.
Except, it doesn’t.
At least, not at the rate once suggested.
In fact, most people have their footwork hardwired. It’s not (just) the shoes–it’s us. While we can, through hard work, change our footwork, our natural inclination is still our natural inclination. Suddenly taking off our shoes will not be a revelatory moment in our exercises.
Stride changes are also overstated. Many have found that there were no changes to the manner in which they run. Personal records rarely seem to be broken and when progress is made it is unclear if this change correlates with barefoot running.
Promised results such as speed, strength or endurance have often been suspect. After adopted barefoot running in the long-term, runners have seen little progressive change if any at all.
This is something of an obvious notion. Any new exercise, and any exercise in general, comes with a certain risk of injury. The muscles being trained by barefoot running are muscles that normally do not get a lot of exposure. That’s rather par for the course, but it’s still worth mentioning.
However, without the shoe protecting already softer sections of the foot, there are increased risks. Achilles tendinitis and calf strains are at a much higher risk once the heel-lifting protection of a shoe is gone.
The already tender plantar region (simply, the bottom of your foot) has a thin layer of skin protecting an important and also vulnerable grouping of muscles and tendons. Barefoot running provides dangerous exposure. Broken glass, needles (anyone who remembers beaches in the 80s and 90s will understand this fear), seashells, jagged rocks and stones will become a primary worry during your runs. Even at your most careful, the blisters will be endless.
Hopefully, that bold font caught your attention. This is a short section, somewhat related to the injury section above, but it’s worth giving it its own room.
There are potential hazards that need to be considered. The first is for diabetics. Any worthwhile podiatrist will tell you that the science involving barefoot running hasn’t caught up with the fad yet. It is universally recommended that those with diabetes should run in shoes and consult a podiatrist familiar with their condition before considering barefoot running.
The second consideration is an obvious one: stop running if you lose feeling in your feet. This can happen quickly and easily, especially when first starting out. Even while running on softer surfaces (like grass or the wet shore of a beach), your feet may not be accustomed to this exertion or find the land to be welcoming or forgiving. If you find yourself going numb, stop.
The First Barefoot Run
If you are going to give barefoot running a try, consider a very light workout. This goes for new and experienced runners across the line. While a hard surface, running on concrete and asphalt will likely be better than running in a thicket–fewer chances of sharp objects or hidden dangers. It is believed that the skin of your feet with thicken and coarsen and adapt over time, making these difficulties (or the pain of running on hard surfaces) less of a danger as time goes on. However, this is still your first time out.
Do not begin by running. Start with your usual warm-up routine. Afterward, start with a power walk. Then a minor jog interspersed with a one minute run. Continue like this while increasing duration as you grow more comfortable.
For a more detailed explanation on proper barefoot-running form, be sure to check out the video below.
If you’re curious, but still skeeved out (or curious but put-off by having to restart your running progress), there are workarounds. There are foot-strengthening exercises that can be done to increase balance and work muscles that are disregarded by shoes.
Short-Foot Doming: As we mentioned, running in shoes can be hell on the Achilles tendon and the plantar fascia. Doming exercises can help strengthen your foot and decrease the likelihood of stress-related foot injury. Doming requires you to pull balls of your toes toward your heel. It looks like you’re shortening your foot. It also looks like a cat arching its back.
Please note that this can be a surprisingly frustrating exercise. Your brain is not used to sending this signal out to the body, nor is the body intrinsically programmed to carry it out. With practice, doming will become muscle memory, but the early attempts will be annoying.
Towel Pulls: There are many variations, but this one is clearly for the foot and not the prison pull-up exercise. Here, you’ll drape a towel across the floor. Put yourself in a chair and rest your foot atop the towel. Spread your toes as wide as possible. Now use your toes like a hand, grabbing at the towel and pull it toward you. Continue until it’s crumpled at your foot. Repeat with your other foot. Add some weight at the end of the towel when this exercise becomes too easy.
360-degree Isometric Ankle Presses: Here, you’ll sit yourself on the floor with your legs extended. Use your arms for balance behind your back. Place one foot over the other. Then, with little force, bend your covered foot and toes back against the covering foot. Hold the stress position for a few seconds before slowly returning to a relaxed position and repeat. You should not feel particular pain during this exercise, nor should you be using much force in bending. This is not meant to be stressful, either. Do two sets of ten reps and switch.
Jump Rope: There are several reasons to jump rope. It’s a great exercise in general, but if you do it barefoot, it will especially help toughen the skin of your feet and prepare it for barefoot running, if you are hellbent on giving it a real chance. If not, it still builds foot strength and balance.
All of these exercises will help with foot and ankle strength that may not be otherwise exercised because of your shoes. The extra strength in these areas will allow for greater endurance over time.
But wait–there’s more. If towel pulls are somehow not exciting enough, you can still run (mostly) barefoot. While the minimalist running fad has fluctuated in popularity, it caused enough of a stir for the market to respond, especially it’s most drastic form – barefoot running. Despite their contradictory name, there are “barefoot running shoes” out there. We’ll call them “Minimalist shoes” instead. They’re like toe-shoes but with a sports-bent. Minimalist shoes are thin enough to access those underutilized foot muscles and allow for natural balancing, but sturdy enough to provide some protection.
So Should I Attempt Barefoot Running?
Sure, but in small doses. A decent 10-minute jog, maybe with a tiny bit of interspersed running on a patch of safe ground shouldn’t be a problem.
Barefoot running’s dangers and questionable results keep it from going highly recommended, even with minimalist shoes and sandals bridging the injury potential gulf.
However, its proven positives, such as working underutilized muscle groups, makes for a powerful argument.
Barefoot running is a workout that still needs more exploring, but as it stands right now, it makes for a good secondary workout rather than a viable primary.