For millions of years, our ancestors spread around the globe, treading the earth barefoot over all manner of terrain. As we walked and ran, our feet developed an intricate web of nerves, matched only by those in our hands, which allow us to sense the smallest deviations in the ground. They became capable of withstanding fierce heat and blistering cold by altering the flow of blood and fluids found in our soles.
Over the past two thousand years, as we have moved from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian one, the importance of using the full advantages of our feet has been forgotten, in exchange for the comfort and ease of wearing padded shoes.
With the resurgence of walking and running as leisure activities, the importance of healthy feet is once again becoming a serious issue. On average, runners today can expect a 30-80% chance of injury, and this rate hasn’t changed since people started wearing running shoes. In contrast, most of the running injuries seen in the West are nearly non-existent in cultures where shoes are not habitually worn, such as Kenya and Ethiopia.
Recently, people around the globe have been rediscovering the benefits of running barefoot. Even Nike, whose shoes kicked off the jogging revolution nearly half a century ago, has started to release shoes that are designed to mimic barefoot running. For the most part, these have taken the form of “barefoot” shoes that promise to allow your feet to work as they were intended, without extra padding and motion control features to add weight and change how your feet contact the ground.
Despite the increase in popularity of barefoot running, it can be quite daunting to try to weed out what the pros, cons, dangers, and benefits are. The more you search online, the more contradicting opinions, facts, and anecdotes you will come across. So, to set the record straight and give you the most important stuff in one place, I’ve created this Barefoot Running FAQ.
1. Why barefoot running?
The barefoot running movement seems to have sprung up almost overnight a couple years ago. It was around this time that a book called Born to Run was published by author Christopher McDougall, who chronicled his search for an injury-free way to run. The book takes the reader on a journey through the Copper Canyon in Mexico, where a tribe of runners called the Tarahumara live and run incredible distances completely barefoot (or in simple sandals).
The publication of the book coincided with a Harvard study by Prof. Dan Lieberman, which showed that people who grow up running without shoes run differently than those of us who run shod. Though the study did not speculate as to whether barefoot running was better or worse than running in shoes, it did demonstrate that making the switch resulted in softer landings and reduced impact force.
The conclusion that many barefoot runners take from all this is that running unshod reduces the chance of injury from impact and repetitive stress. At the moment there have been precious few studies on the effects of running with and without shoes, but the hope is that the anecdotal evidence of the barefoot community will be borne out as more people become available to be included in studies.
2. Doesn’t it hurt?
If you do it wrong, then yes, it will hurt. If you do it right, however, it will probably still hurt a bit, but it will ease off as you get better at it. The reason for this is that when transitioning to barefoot running, even if you’re running in “barefoot” shoes, you’re changing how you run. This means that you’re using muscles that have likely been underused for years. It takes time for your body to get used to the change, and if you rush through this bit, it can take even longer to adjust.
Interestingly, the most common site for pain in new barefooters is not the soles of the feet as would be expected, but in the calves and Achilles tendons.
If you run in shoes, then you likely land heel-first every time you take a step. Heels aren’t meant to absorb the impact of your stride – only the padding of modern shoes allows the heel-first landing – and the shock goes up the leg to the knees and hips. When you transition to barefoot running, you will learn to land on your forefoot, which allows you to use your body’s natural shock absorbers: the arches, Achilles tendons, and lower legs. This transition takes time and as you get used to the new style of running it can be very easy to overdo it and find yourself needing to take a few days off to let your limbs recover.
One of the great things about barefoot running is that it’s unforgiving. The pain that you feel is your body’s way of letting you know that you’re doing something wrong. By listening to the pain, you can adjust your form, and before long, you’ll be running with excellent form, and pain-free. This is why a lot of barefoot running gurus say to start out on rough gravel instead of grass. The more pain you feel at first, the quicker you will learn to adjust, and the less likely you will be to develop bad habits.
3. How do you transition from running with shoes to running barefoot?
When you start using any muscles that have been dormant for a long time, it takes a while for them to get built up. It’s the same as if you’ve been a couch potato for years, then decide to go out for an afternoon of football with the boys. If you overdo it, you’re going to feel it.
You can lessen the amount of discomfort you feel during the transition period by taking several steps to get your body ready for running barefoot:
An excellent preparatory exercise is called the 100-up, which is an exercise that has been used by track and field coaches for decades.
The exercise itself is simple: Take your shoes off and stand in place. Now lift one leg up to knee height, then place it back down, being sure to gently place it down, forefoot first. Now repeat with the second leg. Start slowly and work your way up to 100 reps (50 each leg). When you can do 100 of these back-to-back, try doing the same exercise, but faster. The point is not to do as many as you can, as fast as you can, but rather to take your time and focus on doing each repetition perfectly. Here’s a video showing how it’s done:
This deceptively simple exercise works nearly all the muscles involved in barefoot running, and lets your body start to build up the areas that will get the most work when you run. By mastering the 100-up before your first barefoot run, you will dramatically reduce the chance of overdoing it.