I’ve been a runner off and on for most of my adult life, and when I first read about people who were running barefoot, I quickly dismissed it as a crazy fad, but I’ve since discovered that not only is it not nearly as bizarre as it sounds, I wouldn’t run any other way today.
In the past, I suffered from painful foot and occasional knee injuries, but since switching to barefoot running in 2012, all of that changed.
Researchers have found that running barefoot causes less collision to the feet than running in cushioned shoes – so much for those ridiculously expensive running shoes. I’d probably spent thousands on them over the years, and it turns out the only thing they were good for was fashion. I never found a pair that truly did what some of the pricey athletic shoes are supposed to do. Dr. Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, says that cushioned running shoes may actually “contribute to foot injuries.” Barefoot runners tend to land on the balls of their feet and generate a smaller collision force than rear foot strikers.
Lieberman remarked, “Most people today think barefoot running is dangerous and hurts, but actually you can run barefoot on the world’s hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort and pain.”
Lieberman performed a study that convinced him humans were born to run barefoot. He discovered that runners wearing shoes usually land heel-first, but that barefoot runners landed farther forward, ultimately causing much less collisional force to the body. Lieberman also noted that running shoes “dampen the shock of a heel-first landing,” which is probably not the most efficient way to run. In fact, he says that the way barefoot runners run seems to store up more energy.
Anthropologist Brian Richmond from George Washington University explained how it works: “It allows the arch of the foot and the calf muscles to act as a better spring and to store up energy, and then give it back in the beginning of the next step.”
In 2012, a paper on injury rates by Dr. Leiberman was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise and reported a “2.6-times greater chance of having a severe injury” from running in shoes than running barefoot or minimally shod. While the small study is not enough evidence to say conclusively that running in traditional shoes leads to injury and barefoot running does not, countless barefoot runners, including myself, are convinced that barefoot is better.
Physical therapy professor at the University of Delaware, Irene Davis, is referred to as a “barefoot running skeptic turned convert,” by the author of the popular book about barefoot running, “Born to Run,” Christopher McDougall. Davis herself is now running 20 miles per week on asphalt and found that it doesn’t hurt. She says, “The harder the surface, the more lightly you land and the more easily you spring back.”
But Is Barefoot Better For Everyone?
While many people find that running barefoot is a positive game changer, it’s not for everyone. Podiatrist Steve Pribut is a respected running injury specialist and he says he has seen a fair amount of injuries from barefoot running, namely plantar fasciitis, a painful heel injury. People who are overpronators, supinators or who have poor forefoot stability may experience more problems running without shoes.
This also underscores the importance of transitioning slowly to barefoot running, especially if you’ve never been one to go barefoot. Following these three steps can help you make that successful transition:
Start by walking around barefoot for 20 to 30 minutes a day for the first four weeks. Take your shoes off as much as you can, especially while you’re standing. At the four-week mark, begin barefoot running for very small distances on a soft surface. If you happen to live near a beach, take advantage of running on the sand. Not only is it a wonderful setting, running barefoot on this soft, pliable surface allows your feet to move through their natural range of motion and serves to strengthen your feet and ankles. Increase your distance by about ten percent each week.
If you’ve always worn shoes, it can be helpful to add balance exercises as well as stretching – yoga is ideal – to increase flexibility as well as strength in your ankles and feet. Practice standing on one leg and roll your entire body weight from the outside of your foot to the inside of the foot and back.
After eight weeks, you can begin running on harder surfaces if you need to. Remember to take things slow and listen to your body. If you experience pain, stop! Doing too much too soon can quickly lead to injury.
Barefoot Running Form
Form is important too, just as it is with traditional running. There is no single perfect running form with either, but barefoot running makes it easier to naturally run with better form, and while everyone is unique, there are general tips that individual runners can start with, although you may need to experiment a little to find what works best.
- Your landing should feel gentle and relaxed. After the front of the foot lands, let the heel down gradually as you would when landing from a jump, flexing the hip, knee and the ankle. It should feel soft and springy. Wearing typical athletic running shoes encourages runners to land heel first which causes more force to the body, whereas landing toe first minimizes the impact.
- Don’t over stride. This requires you to point your toe more than you should which adds stress to the calf muscles, the arch of the foot and the Achilles tendon.
- One of the disadvantages of running at the beach is that it’s difficult to tell if you are running properly. If you aren’t sure, try running completely barefoot on a hard, smooth surface for a short time first so that you can easily tell if you are landing too hard.
The Best Barefoot Running Shoes
When it comes to barefoot running, there is a wide range of opinions as to which barefoot shoes are best, and it really is a decision that’s highly personal. My hands-down favorite, however, are the shoes that fit like a glove and tend to get some strange looks when people see you in public wearing them: Vibram FiveFingers. They definitely have a unique appearance, but I love the way they feel – it’s like having just an extra layer on your foot rather than some clunky shoe. But at the same time, they protect your feet from whatever gross thing you might step on. Since switching to these shoes five years ago, I’ve yet to experience a running injury.
There are numerous different types of Vibram FiveFingers shoes, with designs specifically for men, women, trail runners and so on, but my favorites to date are the Komodo Sport LS. They currently sell on Amazon at this page. Compared to those $100+ Nikes, they’re a definite steal.
Merrell Women’s Vapor Glove 2 Barefoot Trail Running Shoe
The Vapor Glove 2 is a popular choice with many trail runners, including a good friend who occasionally hits the trails with me. She loves that they’re lightweight and 100% vegan-friendly. Plus, they look really cool. And, with the foot bed integrated as one unit with the outsole, it’s a definite barefoot kind of running experience. The flexibility really makes it feel as if you’re at one with this shoe. My friend also pointed out that they don’t smell either – something I hadn’t thought of with my Bare Access Merrells, but they both help to prevent sweat and moisture from affecting your shoes by using, as the company notes: “antimicrobial agents penetrate and disrupt the reproduction of the odor causing microbes in your shoes.”
Vivobarefoot Primus Road
Vivobarefoot is another very good brand when it comes to many different types of minimalist shoes, and the Primus Road barefoot shoe is a great pick. It feels like it’s barely there with a very thin sole that lets your feet feel the ground and connect with the run while offering necessary protection too. These are also vegan-friendly, offer lots of breathabilities, and have a gorgeous design – the red looks amazing when you’re whizzing by.
You can pick up the Vivobarefoot Primus Road from Amazon here.