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.
The reason I started looking into barefoot running was the reason that most of us do, and that's injury prevention. Historically I have tried running; I've tried training for the London marathon, I've tried running 10k, but the result was always the same. Bad knees, tight IT bands, and eventually injury. In the end, I just gave up. That was until I read about barefoot running.
Before changing to a barefoot running style, I went to Vivo Barefoot headquarters to have my gait analysed. I ran on a treadmill barefoot and the guys checked the way I run. They claim that everyone is designed to run and it is only due to cushioned running trainers that we end up getting injured.
The main struggle I had with barefoot running was the impact on my calves. Changing to a forefoot strike puts a lot more pressure on your calf muscles and they start to ache a lot. Like anything, you need to build up slowly. I did build up my training and I got faster and a much stronger runner. But it was time to welcome a new running injury, shin splints.
So after building up working through the issues has been changed in worth it? Completely.Remember, changing running style will not happen overnight. This is a long, slow process.
Paul Mumford is a qualified personal trainer and author of The Accumulator Workout. He talks to Sundried about how he got into fitness and how he created The Accumulator Workout.
Have you always been so dedicated to exercising and eating right?
Not at all. At school, I was the fat kid who hated anything that brought me out in even the mildest of sweats. I’d take great pride in creating a myriad of excuses as to why I couldn’t do cross country on any given week and always got picked last for any team. As a young adult, I drank, smoked and ate pretty much what I liked while working crazy hours as a DJ. My light bulb moment came in the shape of a big back injury sustained while working in a small plane (don’t ask). I wound up in hospital on all manner of drugs followed by months of physio. I guess you could say that I got a big kick up the backside and that, coupled with an inspirational Canadian Physio, made me realise that I wasn’t all that indestructible after all.
What persuaded you to pursue a career in fitness?
I guess it was that whole back injury thing that did it. Primarily, my physio taught me how to use my core to protect my permanently fragile lumbar spine. At the time, my surgeon telling me I’d never run again was not a big problem but as I got more fascinated by the control I had over my own body I decided to prove him wrong. Sixteen years later and I’m a barefoot running coach. I proved him wrong big time.
What made you decide to start The Accumulator Workouts?
It really happened by accident. I wanted to motivate myself one Sunday morning while out running. I had an idea to run a total of 50k over one month and tweet a photo every time I added to my goal. #50kinmay caught the attention of hundreds of people and by the end of the month, I had been tweeted many photos of total strangers running in some pretty amazing places. By the end of that year, I had dreamt up several similar challenges and more and more people came along for the ride. Finally, I wanted to see how far I could take it and filmed 30 videos, one for each day of the month, with a new exercise added each day. The Accumulator Workout was born and here we are nearly 3 years later.
What is the best advice you could give to someone starting out?
- Your perfect body will not arrive tomorrow. If you haven’t looked after yourself for years it will take time to feel different and look different. However, each day is one day closer to where you want to be and one day further away from where you are.
- Any temporary change will only give you temporary results. Quick diets and six-week plans don’t work; you need to do this stuff forever.
If you could do any workout what would it be?
My favourite workout uses my body and nothing else. The variety of exercises I can do are virtually limitless and there is always a new way to challenge myself so it never gets boring. Also, I never split my body up when I exercise. My body is one muscle hanging in 640 different places and not 640 individual muscles.
What is your favourite bit of fitness kit?
My body. I’ve had it for 47 years, it was given to me for free, and it gets better the more I use it.
How do you balance being a writer, PT, parent, training and a social life as well as making guest appearances on TV and radio?
Well, firstly my family are the ones I love and are my priority. As far as everything else is concerned, I truly believe that by doing what I love it will never feel like work and never be stressful. So if I don’t want to do something I won’t do it. I’ve had to learn this though, once upon a time I said yes to everyone and everything. That was stressful. I guess learning to say no once in awhile can be a good thing. Plus I think I am more valuable to someone if I’m enjoying myself.
What made you decide to work with Sundried?
I love helping people, that’s why I do what I do. Nothing gives me a buzz more. In business, I always try to champion companies and brands I believe in. I’m proud to walk into a gym and stand in front of a camera wearing Sundried clothing because I believe in the brand. I have been nothing but impressed by the quality of the product and the people who deliver it.