Fitness Articles

The Pros and Cons of Barefoot Running

The Science (and Common Sense) of Running without Footwear

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Although barefoot running has been practiced in some parts of the world for hundreds of years, the concept has only recently gained popularity as an alternative to traditional running shoes in the Western world.  The book "Born to Run," published in 2009, explored the patterns of distance runners who are able to avoid common injuries by running without shoes. This sparked a whole new interest in barefoot running and minimalist running shoes, which are lightweight and flexible and have very little padding or support. Proponents of barefoot exercise claim that the excessive support and cushioning of traditional running shoes leads to muscle weakness and injury, while opponents contend that running in minimalist footwear (or no shoes at all) doesn't provide enough protection or support. 
 
Is barefoot running just a fad, or is the trend toward minimalism worth trying? It’s important to do the research before deciding whether or not barefoot running is right for you. The two sides of this debate each have research to support their claims. First, let’s look at some of the research supporting minimalist running.

A 2010 study in the journal Nature found that the majority of runners wearing shoes strike their heels, which causes a large and sudden collision force that happens (on average) 960 times for every mile ran.  The authors concluded that this makes runners prone to repetitive stress injuries. People who run barefoot tend to land with a step toward the middle or front of the foot, causing less impact force to the foot. (Learn more about the difference between heel and forefoot striking in this article on proper running form.)
 
A 2012 study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that minimalist runners are "more economical" than traditionally runners regardless of foot strike—even after controlling for shoe mass and stride frequency. The researchers believe that minimalist shoes provide a more "elastic" energy storage and release than other running shoes.
 
Other recent studies question the validity of the benefits of barefoot running. The journal Sports Health published a review in 2012 that concluded that there is not yet enough research to determine whether or not foot strike has a positive or negative effect on injury. A year later, the Journal of Applied Physiology concluded that the forefoot strike pattern is not more economical than the rearfoot strike pattern. 

Potential Benefits of Barefoot Running
While running barefoot or in minimalist shoes might not solve all of your aches and pains, it may help strengthen the muscles, ligaments and tendons of the foot. It can also help lengthen the Achilles and calf muscles, which can shorten over time if you wear shoes that provide a "lift" to the heel.

Barefoot running teaches a person to land on their forefoot, which is a better shock absorber than landing on the heel. 

Barefoot or minimalist running can help improve balance and body awareness. Running without shoes stimulates the smaller muscles in your legs, ankles, feet and hips, which can improve coordination and balance.

Potential Risks of Barefoot Running
There's no doubt that shoes offer significant foot protection. It’s much easier to be injured by glass, rocks or other debris on the road or trail when you are shoeless. Shoes also do provide some stability at the ankle joint that can protect you from injury if landing incorrectly or a little off balance—a common occurrence when running on uneven terrain, such as trails.  

Blisters are one short-term complication that many people experience when first switching to barefoot running. This is temporary until calluses develop, but can still cause discomfort.

Barefoot or minimalist running isn’t something a person can switch to overnight. Trying to convert too quickly increases the risk of injury, since this type of running is more work for the muscles of the feet.

Building Up to Barefoot Running
If you are new to barefoot or minimalist running, don’t expect that you can immediately run the same kind of distances you are used to doing in traditional running shoes. That is a recipe for discomfort at best and injury at worst. 

It can take one to two months for your muscles to adapt to barefoot running. Fitness expert Ben Greenfield suggests the following program to reduce your chances of injury:
  • Weeks 1-4: Walk barefoot for 20-30 minutes each day, while also standing and walking with your shoes off as much as possible when working or at home.
     
  • Weeks 5-6: Start running barefoot on soft surfaces for very short distances (no more than 1 mile) two or three times per week. Go slow and easy.
     
  • Weeks 7-8: Gradually increase distance by no more than 10 percent per week.
     
  • Weeks 8+: If you are pain free and comfortable running on soft surfaces, begin to test out some harder surfaces. Be attentive to how your feet feel and if anything hurts (not just your feet).
Looking strictly at the research, the jury is still out on whether barefoot running is better than running in traditional shoes. Future research could determine the answer, but it's important to remember that every individual reacts differently to any stimuli, so what has worked well for others might not necessarily be ideal for you (and vice versa). Barefoot running is something you might consider trying (with the careful progression discussed above), especially if you’ve had injury problems in the past. But if you’ve been running injury-free and are happy with your progress, don’t feel the need to jump headfirst into the latest fitness trend---at least not yet. 
 

Sources

Gruber AH, Umberger BR, Braun B, Hamill J. "Economy and rate of carbohydrate oxidation during running with rearfoot and forefoot strike patterns." Journal of Applied Physiology. 2013 Jul;115(2):194-201.

Huffington Post, "How to Start Barefoot Running," www.huffingtonpost.com, accessed on August 27, 2013.

Lieberman, Daniel E., Venkadesan, Madhusudhan, Werbel, William A., Daoud, Adam I., D'Andrea, Susan, Davis, Irene S., Mang'Eni, Robert Ojiambo, Pitsiladis, Yannis. "Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners." Nature 463, 531-535 (28 January 2010).

Lorenz, Daniel S. Pontillo, Marisa. "Is There Evidence to Support a Forefoot Strike Pattern in Barefoot Runners? A Review." Sports Health. November/December 2012 vol. 4 no. 6 480-484.

Perl DP, Daoud Al, Lieberman DE. "Effects of Footwear and Strike Type on Running Economy." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2012 Jul;44(7):1335-43. 


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Member Comments

  • CHRISTOPHER63
    I don't think I'll be trying rhis
  • I run and walk barefoot indoors but Iíve learned the hard way to wear shoes outdoors.
  • Great article, but still don't believe I will try this one.
  • Enjoyed the chart to show you one suggestion to go from shoes to barefoot.
  • Great article..........
    ..........Thank You.
  • PATNELSON007
    I swear by Vibram 5-finger running shoes. Never get shin splints like I did in highschool when I ran a lot on the cross country team, despite weighing a lot less than I weigh now.
  • Interesting article
  • I used to barefoot run, but only on padded surfaces.
  • We lived in Kenya, which is home to so many world-class runners. I've been to ELDORET, Kenya, and to the home of Kip Keino, the first Kenyan runner to win the Olympics.

    Some Kenyan and other East African runners love to run barefoot. Or the next closest thing - the running shoes that look like toes. I have a pair of those around here somewhere. Not bad. Got them on sale in the U.S. when not many were ready to wear them.
  • I prefer to be barefoot inside but wear shoes outside
  • SHARONSOWN
    The number one consideration is BE CAREFUL!!!!! I wear flip-flops nearly year round (in South Texas, you can do that) and have managed to break both wrists and a toe at different times due to catching the shoe on the edge of a stair or a hole or some such. I wear regular shoes for my walks as I'm pretty sure I'd end up breaking my neck, otherwise! Plus, as I live in (at?) a stable, there's all kinds of nasty stuff to step in. No barefoot here outside the house!
  • SHARONSOWN
    The number one consideration is BE CAREFUL!!!!! I wear flip-flops nearly year round (in South Texas, you can do that) and have managed to break both wrists and a toe at different times due to catching the shoe on the edge of a stair or a hole or some such. I wear regular shoes for my walks as I'm pretty sure I'd end up breaking my neck, otherwise! Plus, as I live in (at?) a stable, there's all kinds of nasty stuff to step in. No barefoot here outside the house!
  • The picture your social media liaison posted on G+ is a hamburger and fries; the article is about running without shoes. Let's play: GUESS THE CONNECTION!! ;)

About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist and behavior change specialist. See all of Jen's articles.