Barefoot and minimalist shoe running have gained popularity in the last few years. Maybe you’ve seen people wearing Vibram “toe shoes” or heard about this barefoot running trend.
Whether you’ve read the book “Born to Run” and barefoot/minimalist running has piqued your interest, or you just think it is a completely wacky trend, there is a lot of debate about the benefits and validity of the movement. I’ve seen articles claiming that barefoot running is the only safe way to run and articles claiming that barefoot running is inherently dangerous.
It seems to be a polarizing topic that many people are passionate about (on both sides of the issue). I’m not a fan of wearing shoes and avoid them whenever possible, so I was excited to try the barefoot running trend.
Here’s what I found.
Why Barefoot Running?
Before I tried barefoot running, I consulted a friend who is a physical therapist about the safety of it and any possible problems.
He explained that when barefoot running is done correctly and worked up to slowly, it can be safe, but that many people jump in and begin running the same way they’ve always run, just without shoes, and that this causes problems.
From what he explained, the foot strikes the ground differently when shoes are worn. With shoes, a person is more likely to heel strike, or let the heel touch the ground first (especially unless the person has specifically trained not to run this way). Without shoes, landing in a heel strike can be damaging to the foot, especially over time, and it is much better to land on the mid-foot or top of the foot.
If a person tries to run with a heel strike in minimalist shoes or barefoot, this is likely to cause discomfort or even injury as the full impact of the strike is absorbed in the heel and transferred up the leg. Landing in a mid-foot strike allows for a more gentle impact and reduces this risk.
Even if a person begins running with a mid-foot strike when switching to minimalist shoes or barefoot options, the process uses the muscles of the foot and leg different, and should be worked up to slowly. I speak from experience on this one, as my first day running in five-fingers, I pushed too hard and ended up with really sore calves for about a week.
The benefits of running in minimalist shoes or barefoot are that it naturally leads to a shorter stride, which means a lower impact on the feet and legs, and that it leads to landing with a slightly flatter foot, which may also help reduce injury.
Should You Run Barefoot?
What I learned: Learn to run better before you try to learn to run barefoot. Even if you don’t want to run barefoot, there may be benefits to learning to run like you are, as it is gentler on the feet and legs and may reduce the chance of injury.
If you heel strike like I did, I found it helpful to practice on nice soft grass and focusing on landing mid-foot (plus, this brought back memories of running around the backyard barefoot as a kid). When running this way, the heel still hits the ground, just not before the ball of your foot does (many people make this mistake, never let their heels touch, get really sore calves, possibly Achilles issues and swear off barefoot/minimalist running for life).
Another thing to focus on is increasing turnover. This means taking smaller steps but moving the legs more quickly. Instead of extending the foot in front of the body to propel forward, I focused on just leaning my body slightly forward to propel myself and “catching” myself during a controlled forward fall.
I also found it helpful to wear minimalist shoes. As much as I loved being barefoot in the grass, this wasn’t doable on concrete or harder surfaces and minimalist shoes like five-fingers protected my feet but allowed me to work on my running technique.
The Bottom Line?
Barefoot walking and running (or wearing minimalist shoes) has been great for me, but it seems that many people do this with poor technique, leading to injury and giving the trend a bad name.
Ever run barefoot? Want to start? Share below!