The mechanics of running seem pretty simple, right? You put one foot in front of the other, find a comfortable pace and get your heart pumping. For the most part, it is that simple, but certain techniques—including barefoot running—can require a little more guidance and practice in order to reap benefits. So before you kick your regular athletic shoes aside and jump into this popular running style, it's worth understanding what the barefoot method involves—and whether it’s right for you, says Jeff Dolgan, M.S., C.S.C.S., H.F.I., clinical exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch in Miami.
Q: What is barefoot running?
A: While it did start with people running in bare feet (back in the ‘40s and ‘50s), these days it means running in a minimal shoe or a "negative" heel shoe—meaning very thin shoes that have no heel padding. These shoes don’t have any heel elevation whatsoever; the purpose is to eliminate heel striking (landing on your heel first while running), which removes impact from the back of your foot and places it more in the middle. While running in traditional athletic shoes you normally strike with your heel, because most shoes elevate the back of your foot so you can't land mid-foot.
The technique gained a lot of popularity starting around 2009 because of a book called Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. The book is about a Mexican tribe who have been running and racing barefoot their whole lives.
The key to benefitting from barefoot running is knowing how to do it correctly. A lot of people try to start the barefoot technique on their own, but you should learn from a coach, because if you land the wrong way you’ll injure yourself and adopt incorrect form. It can take a while to master, and learning from a pro is essential to doing that.
Q: Who should consider this type of running?
A: If you’re moderately fit, try it. Ideally, barefoot running is for people who have already been following a fitness routine for at least six months, are running consistently and have lower-body strength. I wouldn’t recommend this regimen to those just beginning to exercise, as they'll probably lack the postural control and calf strength needed to barefoot run safely and effectively.
If you have recurring shin splits or an overuse injury like IT band syndrome (when the iliotibial band that runs down the outside of your leg becomes inflamed or tight), get evaluated by a physical therapist to see if you’re over-pronating (rolling inward after landing) your foot; if so, barefoot running might be suggested. But without an expert’s advice don’t assume that switching to a minimalist shoe will relieve pain.
Q: What does a negative heel shoe look like?
A: There are many different styles of barefoot running shoes these days, including Vibram FiveFingers—most recognizable because they look like your bare feet with separate toe compartments. Ask at an athletic shop or any place that sells running shoes about barefoot shoes so you can try on different kinds.
Q: What are the benefits of the barefoot running technique?
A: The ground reaction force—which is how hard your foot hits the ground—is about 60 to 70 percent less when you have a mid-foot strike. That’s a lot less pressure on your feet, legs and knees with every step you take. That’s why these shoes can be especially beneficial for long-distance runners—meaning any run beyond a 5K, or longer than 40 minutes. Barefoot running shoes are ideal for endurance running and racing, since putting less weight on your feet means less contact time with the ground, helping you decrease your time. That said, it's probably not worth the effort if you’re just doing a short workout.
Q: Does it work different muscles?
A: When you take your foot out of a regular shoe and put it in a more natural environment, all the muscles in your feet have to re-learn how to contract together. In a regular shoe, our foot is one unit—our toes don’t work individually—but with barefoot running, you can strengthen all the muscles in your lower feet over time. It takes approximately four to six weeks for your feet to start adapting; strength will continue to be gained over the following couple of months.
Q: Are there any concerns to keep in mind?
A: Your chances of getting hurt are higher if you try this without a coach; research has shown a dramatic increase in metatarsal fractures (breaks in the long bones from your ankles to your toes) due to improper barefoot running. Another big issue is that your calf muscles are over-activated during barefoot runs, so if you don’t have good calf strength you could experience calf tears and strains. Additionally, this type of running could affect your lower back: Your body should be leaning forward about 30 degrees (instead of straight up and down), but if you lack postural control, you might arch your lower back and put pressure on your lumbar spine. The key is angling your entire body forward, not just leaning from your waist.
Q: What type of surface is best for barefoot running?
A: The beach is a great place to run, though maybe not on the deep, soft sand at first; the harder-packed sand near the water is level and ideal for barefoot beginners. Dirt and grass surfaces are also great, but can sometimes be hard to find in long stretches. Avoid asphalt and concrete; even treadmills are too rigid. Most coaches will take you to a natural environment. You can search for a technique specialist on sites like posetech.com.
Q: What should someone keep in mind when they start?
A: Start slowly and don't alternate between traditional running and barefoot running. The biomechanics of the two styles are very different—you’re changing your body angle, arm action and hamstring activation with barefoot running, so it’s not ideal to switch back and forth. And because you’re moving your body differently you should expect some calf discomfort at first. If you’re used to running five miles but experience calf pain when trying to go that distance barefoot, don’t push it; build up to your usual mileage over time. The same advice applies to your pace: Initially, you’ll feel more fatigued with this technique because you’re using more energy as you adapt to the form. Go easy on your cardiorespiratory system and reduce your speed. Over time, you’ll become more economical and you’ll be able to run faster with less effort.
Q: What else can people do to help prepare and protect their bodies and feet for barefoot running?
A: Calf flexibility and ankle mobility are really important, so stretching all the muscles that affect those areas is necessary. Try a basic calf stretch: Stand facing a wall with your toes no more than a half-inch away from it. Take one foot and press your toes up against the wall, keeping your heel on the ground, and then slightly lean forward until you feel the stretch in your calf. Stay here for 30 to 60 seconds and then switch feet.
A foam roller can be a helpful tool, too. Sitting on the ground, place the roller under your hamstrings (the backs of your thighs) and, with your hands on the floor behind you, straighten your arms and lift your butt off the ground, rolling your body over the roller from your glutes to your knees. Lower back down. Next, place the roller under your knees, lift your butt, and this time roll your body over the roller from your knees to your ankles.