Strong evidence shows that thickly cushioned running shoes have done nothing to prevent injury in the 30-odd years since Nike founder Bill Bowerman invented them. Some smaller, earlier studies suggest that running in shoes may increase the risk of ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis and other injuries. Injuries plague 20 to 80 percent of regular runners every year.
Going shoeless allows your foot to flex and absorb shock. With thick heels, people lengthen their strides, landing heel-first and letting the shoe absorb the impact of each footfall. You can’t do that barefoot, so your body naturally falls into a shorter stride, landing first on the outside middle or ball of your foot. As you advance your foot rolls inward; the arch flattens and helps absorb the impact; it then springs back up as you lift your foot and push off the ground.
If you enjoy running and want to take your workout to the next level, it may be time to ditch your running shoes … or at least switch to one of the more barefoot-oriented footwear options now available.
I first started running back in 1968 and this has been one of my preferred forms of exercise for over 40 years (although recently I’ve put running aside in favor of a more varied workout).
Although I almost always wear running shoes during my runs, if you’ve ever gone for a barefoot run on the beach, it becomes immediately apparent how good running barefoot feels. It’s liberating from a mental perspective, yes, but also from a physical one.
If you get the opportunity, watch a baby walking barefoot; they actually display the correct walking technique that we adults have lost touch with.
Why Might Running Barefoot be Beneficial?
To put it simply, your feet were designed to work best without shoes. So when you surround your feet with the extra padding and protection that most athletic shoes offer, your foot muscles are not being used appropriately.
There are obviously some concerns with running barefoot, namely stepping on a sharp object or rock and injuring your skin. But if done properly, barefoot running can be quite safe. Marathon runners in Kenya actually do it all the time.
In fact, research by Michael Warburton, a physical therapist in Australia, found that running barefoot decreases the likelihood of ankle sprains and chronic injuries, such as plantar fasciitis.
Further, he writes that wearing footwear actually increases the likelihood of ankle sprains, one of the most common sports injuries, because it either decreases your awareness of foot position or increases the twisting torque on your ankle during a stumble.
Also revealing is Warburton’s observation that foot and leg injuries are much lower in developing countries, where shoes are not the norm. He writes:
“Where barefoot and shod populations co-exist, as in Haiti, injury rates of the lower extremity are substantially higher in the shod population. Furthermore, running-related chronic injuries to bone and connective tissue in the legs are rare in developing countries, where most people are habitually barefooted.”
Physics NOT Biomechanics Might Offer the Answer
Interestingly, one of my friends, Tim Ferriss, did a blog posting on this earlier this year and he felt that Vibram Five Finger shoes provided a modern-day equivalent. I actually purchased a pair and occasionally wear them.
I do believe they are likely superior to most shoes, although you will be sartorially challenged with them. However, they are likely not as good as actually running barefoot (assuming you don’t step on any sharp object). The primary reason is not related to biomechanics but physics.
One of the primary reasons that walking or running barefoot might be helpful is that it allows free electrons from the earth to pass into your body and essentially provide you with loads of great antioxidant potential. Very few of us currently touch the earth’s surface as we are nearly always wearing shoes.
Doesn’t take much brain power to recognize that our ancestors for most of history did not wear shoes and had this type of regular contact with the earth, either by walking, running or sleeping on the ground. In other words, they were grounded through much of the day, and most of us are not.
To the best of my knowledge there are no carefully controlled studies on this but there are some companies that sell devices to help provide this grounding while one is sleeping.
More Reasons Why You Might Want to Spend More Time Barefoot …
If running barefoot sounds like too drastic a step, you can start out gradually just by spending more time without your shoes on.
One of the classic works on the topic of going barefoot is Take Off Your Shoes and Walk by Simon J. Wikler D.S.C. In it he explains that improperly shaped shoes -- including high heels and pointed toes -- are responsible for modern-day foot troubles.
In fact, the book describes a study from the late 1950s that found children who were allowed to go barefoot had:
- Greater agility
- Denser muscles on the bottom of their feet
- Less deformed toes
- Greater flexor strength
- More ability to spread their toes
- More flexibility of the gluteal and hamstring muscles
Meanwhile, it’s been suggested that shoes lead to what’s called “cow-walk.”
Cow-walk puts tremendous pressure on your joints. Starting with the squeezing of your foot inside the shoe, jarring the knees as they're locked straight upon the pole-driving impact of the heel, which then travels straight up your spine, all the way up your neck.
In contrast, "fox-walking" is the walk of the natural hunter-gatherer -- the graceful flow of your body in total synchronization. Your knees are bent, rather than locked, the ball of your foot touches the ground first, followed by your heel, in a virtually soundless step motion.
And as I said earlier, there have also been some very compelling studies suggesting that when you are "grounded" free electrons can easily come up from the earth and essentially nullify free radicals in your body. Ancient philosophies call this life-force energy Chi (also called Qi or Prana) and believe it can be absorbed through the soles of your feet automatically and unconsciously when walking barefoot.
Tips for Becoming a Barefoot Runner
If you decide to give barefoot running a try make sure you do it slowly, progressing gradually to more and more time spent without shoes. A good starting point is to first try walking barefoot and then begin with quarter-mile barefoot runs.
Keep in mind also that your gait will be different than it is with your shoes on. Listen to your body and try to tune in to your innate knowledge of how to run and walk barefoot.
Also, when you start going barefoot it is best to initiate on naturally softer ground like grass, dirt paths and sand, not cement, asphalt or hardwood. When the muscles and joints of your foot become more stable and the skin on the bottom of your feet thickens, you will be able to handle progressively more time barefoot and on a wider variety of surfaces.
You can also try out one of the several minimalist footwear options now on the market. These shoes are designed to give you many of the benefits of going barefoot but will protect your feet from abrasions, which is especially useful when you’ll be running on rough terrain or in hot or cold temperatures.