Barefoot running is a phenomenon that has gained great popularity in the running community in the past few years. It is seen as a way to limit the negative effects of footwear and as a panacea for running-related injuries.
Barefoot running is nothing new. Rural children throughout the ages have run in this manner. It was first introduced to the world of competitive running in the 1960 Rome Olympics by the gold-medal winner of the men’s marathon, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, who ran barefoot.
Other competitive runners also ran barefoot, most notably Zola Budd in the 1980s. It was not until the 1990s that the idea of minimalist/barefoot running caught on with the general public. The popular legend is that a Nike representative was visiting Stanford University’s track and field team, and he observed them running barefoot on the grass.
The rep wanted to know why the team weren’t wearing the new Nike shoes they had just received. The head track coach replied that running barefoot was something they had always done, and that it seemed to allow them to run faster with fewer injuries. Thus the Nike Frees, a minimalist shoe, was born. A multitude of other minimalist shoes followed.
Advantages of Barefoot Running
Lieberman’s 2010 study on barefoot running is seen as a major impetus for the popularity of barefoot running. In this study, Foot Strike Patterns & Collision Forces in Habitually Barefoot Versus Shod Runners, Lieberman et al. studied how the feet of barefoot and shod runners hit the ground.
The force of impact was also measured and compared. The study showed that habitually barefoot runners usually land closer to the ball of the foot (forefoot) or in the middle of the foot (midfoot) (2). This landing causes a gentler impact on the ground.
The shoe-wearing runner usually lands on the heel, most likely due to the elevated, cushioned heels found in running shoes. This type of landing causes a harder impact on the ground (2). The study was seen as a reason to try barefoot running—the logic was that by reducing ground impact, you can reduce impact-related running injuries.
There are other differences between barefoot running and shoe running. The forefoot/midfoot landing pattern of barefoot runners shortens the length of their stride, increasing the number of strides needed to run a given distance.
This leads to decreased ground contact time, decreased flight time, and less movement of an individual’s center of mass (2, 3, 4, 5, 6). In addition, studies show that the barefoot/minimalist runner has a lower heart rate and consumes less oxygen than a shoe runner (7).
All these results can be seen as evidence that barefoot running is a more economical and potentially safer way to run.
Drawbacks of Barefoot Running
The difficulty with barefoot running is the transition into it. There is no universal protocol to follow that makes this transition seamless. An individual should be given a thorough lower extremity examination by a podiatrist.
This examination should include muscular strength evaluation, gait analysis, and an analysis of the subject’s range of joint motion. The results of this examination will determine whether the individual is a good candidate for barefoot running—and if so, what the transition protocol should be.
People who may not be good candidates for barefoot running include individuals with a leg-length discrepancy; weakness of the hip muscles; rigid, flat, and high-arched feet; diminished sensation in the feet (neuropathy); and those with weakened bone stock (osteopenia).
The key to transitioning to barefoot/minimalist running is to do it gradually in order to allow for musculoskeletal adaptation.
The usual recommendation is to increase barefoot/minimalist running by no more than 10% per week (8). This is believed to reduce the incidence of injuries, stress fractures, and conditions such as plantar fasciitis (heel pain).
There has been a recent trend toward barefoot running for brief intervals. Training in a Nike Free type of shoe for a distance of no more than a mile might be advantageous for the intrinsic muscles of the foot.
It is very difficult to suddenly run barefoot after a lifetime protected by shoes. Barefoot running can result in injury.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor about Barefoot Running
- Is barefoot running safe for me?
- Do I need to do anything to prepare for barefoot running?
- How long will it be until I can start barefoot running all the time?