The 411 on Barefoot Running

You’ve probably seen people running barefoot. Why do they do it? Learn if running barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes is a safe and effective workout option for you.

Ben Greenfield
6-minute read
Episode #91

The 411 on Barefoot Running

On previous Get-Fit Guy episodes, I’ve addressed the topic of fitness shoes, and whether funny-shaped exercise footwear actually does do a better job at toning your calves, thighs, or butt. I’ve also talked about how to choose the right exercise shoes for your specific activity, and even how to avoid heel pain from plantar fasciitis by strengthening your feet properly. 

With all this talk about shoes and feet, I haven’t purposefully neglected the topic of barefoot running. But it’s taken me until now to actually get a chance to do a significant amount of barefoot running myself, and also to extensively test minimalist running shoes.

So in today’s episode, you’ll learn if running barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes is safe, and get tips for barefoot running..

The Popularity of Barefoot Running

In case you hadn’t noticed, barefoot running seems to be a bit of a craze these days. From Paleo and primal enthusiasts to the Barefoot Running Society (with nearly 2,000 members), to crazy people trying to run across the country barefoot, barefoot running has certainly exploded in popularity over the past decade – despite significant advances in shoe technology for features such as better cushioning or enhanced motion control.

How Running Works

But to evaluate whether barefoot running is actually safe, it’s important to understand the basic mechanics of running.

When you run, each of your legs goes through two basic phases: a ground contact phase (in which your foot strikes the ground and maintains contact with the ground) and a swing phase (during which your foot is moving through the air).

Aside from perhaps a small amount of extra weight from a shoe, the swing phase is not as important as the ground contact phase when it comes to understanding how different items on your foot may affect your running gait – so let’s focus on that contact phase, which is basically comprised of:

  1. Contact: your body decelerates and absorbs the impact from striking the ground

  2. Midstance: your body weight shifts from the back of your foot to the front of your foot as you shift your weight forward to prepare for leaving the ground

  3. Toe-off: you extend your foot, ankle, and legs, and propulsively push off the ground

During this phase, your foot needs to absorb the impact of striking the ground, and also absorb your own body weight as it moves over your foot. It’s this scenario that differentiates barefoot running and running with shoes.

Running With Shoes vs. Running Barefoot

When you have shoes on, you tend to strike the ground closer to the back of your foot, which is called a heelstrike. But when you take your shoes off, or run in minimalist shoes such as Vibram Five Fingers or the Merrell Trail Gloves, you tend to strike closer to your midfoot or forefoot, and there are two significant mechanical things that happen when you make this change:

1)  You take shorter strides. Running with shorter strides and higher frequency naturally reduces the impact forces on your foot – which you tend to not worry about quite so much when you’re wearing shoes. Fortunately, shorter strides also mean less impact higher up in your ankles, knees, and hips!

Likely due to these shorter strides, barefoot running has also been shown to lower heart rate and the rate of perceived exertion while increasing running efficiency.

2)  You land with a slightly flatter foot. When you’re running barefoot, your toes are not quite as “pointed towards the sky” and you don’t strike with your heel as much. This means that your heels and ankles undergo far less pressure and impact.

In addition, the skin on the bottom of your foot can actually do a better job sensing the ground when you run barefoot, and this can cause the tiny muscles in your foot to do a better job absorbing shock and lowering impact!

On the other hand, shoes can protect you from sharp objects, extremely cold or hot ground conditions, or bacteria and germs on the ground – not to mention shoes can look far more fashionable with a color coordinated running outfit!

Furthermore, if you are overweight, have poor running form, have a weak core or hips, or have spent your entire life wearing shoes for most activities, then shoes provide your foot with extra “muscle” and cushion to support the impact from landing and keep the foot from excessive movement or arch collapse when you’re running. If you fall into these categories, then barefoot running may be very difficult to transition to, and could actually increase your risk for injury.

How to Start Barefoot Running

But don’t worry! Even if you feel like barefoot running might be difficult for you to start doing, it’s completely possible if you make a smart transition into barefoot running, which is what I’m going to teach you to do. Here are my top 6 Quick & Dirty Tips for running barefoot:

  1. Start Small. Muscular adaptation to new activities takes about 4-8 weeks, so allow for at least this much time to transition into barefoot running or minimalist shoes, especially if you’ve worn shoes your whole life! For example, for the first 4 weeks, you can simply use some of the other tips I’m going to give you to strengthen your feet, while walking barefoot for 20-30 minutes each day and making sure have your shoes off as much as possible, especially when standing at work or home. For the next couple weeks, begin to run barefoot for very small distances on soft surfaces, like a few laps around a park or any easy jog several blocks around a soft track, just 2-3 times per week. Each week, gradually increase this volume, trying to increase by no more than 10% per week. After 8 weeks, you can start experimenting with harder surfaces, paying very close attention to how your feet feel and whether or not anything hurts. If anything does hurt, go back to soft surfaces and strengthening your feet.

  2. Do Drills. As part of the small runs that you begin doing barefoot, also train your body how to run properly by including running form drills, such as skipping, the toe-up drill or the lean drill. These drills will help ensure that you’re running efficiently and striking the ground properly as your barefoot run.

  3. Work On Feel. If you’ve been wearing big, bulky, protective shoes for a long time, then you may have difficulty properly sensing the ground when you run barefoot. So try incorporating “feel-for-the-ground” activities like standing on one leg when you’re brushing your teeth, standing on one leg while on a balance disc or balance pillow at the gym, standing on one leg for exercises like overhead presses, or even using a mini-trampoline a few times a week.

  4. Get Flexible. One of the most common complaints among people who transition to barefoot or minimalist running is that the back of their legs (the calf muscles and the Achilles tendon) feel tight or painful. So before and during your transition to barefoot running, work on the flexibility of the back of your legs by doing calf stretches and foam rolling for the back of your legs.

  5. Strengthen Your Feet. If you’ve worn shoes your whole life, it’s likely that you have weak feet muscles, since one of the primary functions of a shoe is to provide your foot with support. Because of this, I highly encourage foot strengthening activities. While some of the balance activities mentioned earlier will help, I also recommend standing on one leg and practicing rolling your entire body weight from the outside of your foot to the inside of the foot and back. It can also be helpful to do cable kick forwards and cable kick back exercises while standing on one foot. You’ll know you’re doing things right if your tiny foot muscles start to burn and fatigue.

  6. Do Plyometrics. Your feet need to be conditioned to withstand the impact of the ground, since the cushioning of a shoe typically provides significant impact reduction benefits. Plyometrics are explosive exercises in which you are hopping, jumping, bounding or skipping with one leg or two legs, and some of the most helpful plyometric exercises to get you ready for barefoot running are side-to-side hops and single leg jumps onto a box.

Ultimately, whether or not barefoot running actually increases your risk of injury is going to depend on how you approach the transition from wearing shoes to running with minimalist shoes or running barefoot.

If you rush out to buy minimalist shoes, toss your old shoes in the garbage, and launch right into your usual workout routine, you’re almost guaranteed to injure yourself.

But if you make a smart transition, using the Quick & Dirty tips in this article, you may find barefoot or minimalist running reduces how tired your knees and hips are after a run or workout, and increases your enjoyment and feel for the ground during a run.

If you have more questions about how to run barefoot, share them in Comments or on the Get-Fit Guy Facebook page!

Barefoot running image courtesy of Shutterstock.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.