Barefoot running is taking the fitness world by storm as the latest trend. But what exactly is it? Should you be doing it? We answer all of your questions.
What is barefoot running?
Barefoot running is exactly as simple as it sounds: running without shoes. However, our modern bodies have become accustomed to wearing shoes or at least some form of protection on our feet and so this isn't really an option for many people. However, barefoot-style running is the trend we are seeing and is where the running shoes have been designed to mimic running barefoot, while still offering protection from dirt and sharp objects that may cause an injury.
You may well have seen people wearing barefoot running shoes, such as the Vibram FiveFingers shoes which have five separate compartments for your five toes or the Sundried barefoot shoes. They are designed to be as minimalistic as possible and to imitate running barefoot as much as possible.
Barefoot Running In History
Running barefoot is to run as nature intended and people have been running barefoot for millennia. Historians believe the runners and messengers in Ancient Greece ran barefoot and legend has it that Pheidippides, the first marathoner, ran from Athens to Sparta in less than 36 hours. After the Battle of Marathon, it is said he ran straight from the battlefield to Athens to inform the Athenians of the Greek victory over Persia, all barefoot.
At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ethiopian athlete Abebe Bikila ran the marathon barefoot as the Olympic shoe supplier had run out of shoes in his size, winning the race and setting a world record in the process.
Shivnath Singh was one of India’s greatest distance runners and would only ever run barefoot with tape on his feet. He placed 11th in the men's marathon event at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
South African Zola Budd was famed in the 1980s for her barefoot racing and she won the 1985 and 1986 World Cross Country Championships. She found international fame at the 1984 Olympics after a drama-filled 3000m final, which she ran barefoot.
Today, barefoot running is gaining more and more momentum. Organisers of the 2010 New York City Marathon saw an increase in the number of barefoot runners participating in the event.
But why the increase in barefoot running? Does it have the benefits that people claim?
Barefoot Running Benefits
It promotes natural movement
Wearing shoes prevents your body from getting natural feedback from the ground. As you feel the ground, you learn to walk lighter and strike with the balls rather than heels of your feet, which can drastically decrease the impact on your muscles and joints. Impact in a running shoe is the equivalent of 12 times your body weight with every step.
It helps to heal previous injuries
A lot of people don’t run due to prior injuries. Bad knees, shin splints, or even weak ankles can be relieved through barefoot running. By running with a forefront strike, the Achilles is strengthened and stretched along with the calf muscle which may reduce injuries, such as calf strains or Achilles tendinitis.
Running barefoot uses less energy
Running barefoot or in minimal footwear (usually lighter than traditional running shoes) means that there is less mass to accelerate at the end of the runner's leg with each stride. Running barefoot has been shown to use about 5% less energy than shod running. (Divert et al., 2005; Squadrone and Gallozzi, 2009).
Increased muscle tone
Running without the support of a cushioned trainer sole forces you to engage more of you leg muscles, particularly the calves. But it doesn’t just increase muscle development in your legs, running barefoot increases the level of effort you supply throughout the kinetic chain, so you’ll end up leaner in other places too.
Running with a barefoot style. At some point in your life, I’m sure you’ve fallen over. At some point on a run, I’m sure you’ve thought “where did that rock come from?” moments after you’ve tripped. Barefoot running allows you to feel the ground better, improving your proprioception and making you more aware of your environment.
Running barefoot forces you to switch on previously disengaged muscles and reverses you back to how you would walk and move as a child. By gradually reverting back into barefoot running or walking you strengthen every muscle in your feet and lower legs.
Reconnect with the earth
Some people believe that by running barefoot they become more “at one” with nature.
Downsides to running barefoot
Slow adaptation phase
Many people try a barefoot run, ache after and decide never to run in the minimalist shoes again. But why? Aches are an inevitable part of any new footwear, remember how you wear your new heels in, practice walking in them? It’s only the same as with any new pair of trainers, or any new training regime. Initially when starting a new barefoot running regime you should start with short distances and gradually build up a tolerance. Embrace the aches and know that it’s improving your technique in the long run.
Lack of protection
Trainers are now designed with technical features to protect your foot from injury, as well as keep your feet dry, maintain their temperature and make sure nothing sharp such as rocks, stones or debris has access to your foot.
It is inevitable that almost everyone who switches to barefoot or a minimal shoe will find themselves dealing with blisters for the first few weeks until calluses are formed. Whilst this can be frustrating, investing in the correct socks and some gel blister plasters can make all the difference.
Barefoot creates extra pressure
Running shoes also partially absorb the extra pressures created by foot misalignment (for example, highly arched feet). Without the absorption, higher pressure can be a direct cause of pain, which can cause a protective adjustment in technique that in turn could lead to injury.
You can only run in good conditions (which in the UK, are few and far between)
The American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine warns against barefoot running in all but ideal conditions, saying that on soft or slippery surfaces, shoes are required for traction, otherwise you are prone to Achilles or plantar fascia problems (ligament inflammation along the base of the foot).
Tips for going barefoot
- Running barefoot can make your calves tight and tire your feet to start with, since you're firing up muscles you’ve barely used since childhood. Foam roll your calves to help increases recovery.
- Start trying to walk without shoes or in barefoot shoes more. Try at least 30 minutes of barefoot walking a day to allow the muscles and ligaments to adapt before you start venturing on a run.
- Spend some time walking on the balls of your feet (tip toes) to strengthen the foot and ankle.
- Progress to jogging, then gradually increase time and intensity.
- Stick to smooth ground when you first start running and steer clear of trail runs until you have built up a little more resistance.