Is Barefoot Running Good for Your Feet?

wellness mama barefoot running

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!

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Reader Comments

  1. Any thoughts on barefoot-ing while pregnant?  I used to be a barefoot-er (pre-pregnancy) and somewhere along the line switched back to wearing gymshoes.  I’m about 34 weeks now and am noticing my feet growing (swelling?) and feeling weaker.  I know the shoes aren’t helping strengthen my feet at all, but I’m not sure that now is the right time to switch back to barefoot.  Should I wait until after the baby arrives to start walking barefoot (vibrams or huaraches) again? 

    • As late as you are in the pregnancy, I’d probably wait, but if you are able to walk in an area that has grass, it would be great to go barefoot.

    • Hi Lauren, 
      I ran barefoot up until a couple weeks of giving birth!  It felt great but I had been doing it for awhile.  I agree with Katie, maybe do some barefoot walking but wait to transition into it until after your little one comes.  Good luck!

  2. I just replaced my barefoot’s with some Asics due to knee pain. If you are mainly doing paved paths or you have joint damage I think you should consider something with more cushion. The concept of barefooting is great but our ancestors were running on pavement.

    • This is true, and I’ve also found that you can run on pavement with barefoot shoes, but your strike becomes very important. I used to heel strike and when I switched to barefoot, I had to re-train myself, since this was really hard on the joints. A mid-foot strike allows a gentler landing and lessens the joint impact.

    • True, we didn’t have concrete when people were running without shoes way back when.  I think the key is use barefoot running as a complement to your training.  Also make sure to really ease into minimalist shoes slowly- don’t add more than a mile a week.  Your body has to get used to it!

  3. that should say *weren’t running on pavement. Teach me to nurse and type.

    • haha… I feel you on that one…I’ve usually got a little on in my lap while on the computer.

  4. I have to use a heel lift because one of my legs is 1/4 to 1/2 inch shorter than the other leg.  Are there any options for someone in my position?

    • I’m not sure, hopefully they will chime in and answer. I do know that some people see improvement in leg conditions from switching, and I don’t know if there are inserts for them or not…

    • I have a difference of about .5 cm (1/4 in). I opted for no heel lift — ever. I wear shoes as little as possible, and I run barefoot. I started going barefoot at least 80% of the time 3.5 years ago.
      I now have an arch, my ankles haven’t rolled/sprained, and the effects of my ‘more adorable’ leg haven’t really been showing up.

      Orthotics and the slight heel lift only ever aggravated everything…

      My best recommendation is to just try walking barefoot for a while each day, and then try jogging a little, then running. If you’re really noticing the ‘cute leg’ causing problems, get some minimalistic shoes and make an insert for your one heel out of something like wetsuit material stacked until it’s about high enough. I found that my feet were able to compensate for the length difference since I’m not on my heels much…

  5. Does anyone have recommendations for good kids’ minimalist shoes (specifically, for toddlers….the merrell and vibrams don’t run in the size I’m looking for).

    • Depending on what size your kids are: Robeez are good for babies up until about 18 months as they are a completely flat sole. They are a little pricier, but Soft Star also makes some great minimalist shoes for kids.

  6. I always find running in barefoot running shoes way better than running in with your bare feet as barefoot shoes provides extra “protection” from getting your feet injured. In the same way with traditional running shoes, but it’s just that barefoot shoes are much lighter and easier to run.

    Favorite resources:
    Born to Run by Christopher Mcdougall and barefootrunningshoes.org

    • The problem with that extra protection is that it allows you to go to far and to fast to soon. This usually results in injury.  If you run completely bare, your tender feet will be the limiting factor at first, which forces you to slow down.   Plus running complete bare is cooler.

  7. Great post Wellness Mama and Lauren Jones,

    I love that you are getting this information out there. I try to encourage people to get beyond just running barefoot and think in terms of living barefoot. The more we lose the shoes and allow our bodies to experience the world around us, the more our body’s will thank us with healthy pain-free movement. I look forward to more great posts.

  8. After reading this article, I decided it was time to give running altogether another shot. I’m really tall with joint problems, and have been asthmatics my whole life, so running was just TORTURE. Just got back from my first go (around a quarter mile… Gotta start somewhere!) and I must say it was already so much more enjoyable. I felt my muscles working, my hips didn’t go swinging all over the place, because I had a strict form to keep in mind, and I was taking shorter strides. I’ll keep taking it slow, but I think I’m a convert!

  9. All your comments are so helpful to me! I had my daughter through IVF and could only run for 3 months into treatment until I couldn’t do it anymore, so I didn’t run for 3 years, I miss running and when I went last week my joints hurt and it put me off, now reading all this great advice I will go running in the park near to my house barefoot and see how I feel, I have been walking round the house and garden a lot more barefoot and I love it! Thanks for giving me the confidence to go for it! The dog mess worries me though but what’s the worse that can happen! Thank you Katie you are an inspiration to me! X

  10. I have been suffering from plantar fasciitis from last 6 years affecting both feels causing bad feet pains and right knee pain from chondromalacia patella from the last 8 months ,soon after I delivered my third child. I am 38 years old now.
    Can you please advice me about the foot wear and exercises that can heal them and help me lose weight as well.