Running

Barefoot Running Is Fast, Fun, and Bad**s—But It’s Not for Every Body

Kells McPhillips

Photo: Stocksy /Felix Hug

Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book Born to Run tells the enthralling story of the Tarahumara, or Rarámuri—an incredible group of indigenous runners who have learned to cover hundreds of miles through Mexico’s Copper Canyon without ever sustaining injuries. Their secret to both endurance and speed doesn’t lie in intense training plans, saccharine running gels, or next-level recovery tools. McDougall argues that barefoot running is the key to their longevity in the sport—and many other runners have taken Born to Run as their invitation to ditch their sneakers. For good.

For people who love sneakers (raises hand), the idea of going shoeless on the run may seem ridiculous—but there’s actually a lot of new scientific evidence supporting it. Why? Because barefoot running essential forces you to land on the ball of your foot instead of your heel. “If you can teach a runner how to not land on their heel, that is a really big deal for injury risk,” explains Aaron Keil, PT, a clinical associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Chicago. “Over and over again, we’re learning that ground reaction forces—or how much force or weight your body has to absorb with each step—are a lot higher if you land on your heel instead of the ball of your foot. If you land on your midfoot or your forefoot, there’s a lot less force going through your body that you have to manage.”

Many barefoot runners and experts in the sports medicine space believe that the benefits of barefoot toe-striking ripple through your entire body—making your ankles, calves, and every other leg muscle stronger and ready for the run. That, in turn, leads to fewer overall injuries that could result from muscle imbalances or the breakdown in form that can naturally happen when you dip your toes into longer, harder runs.

Below, learn more about how your body gets in gear with barefoot running, how you can achieve a similar feeling with minimalist shoes, and how to know if skipping shoes is the right choice for you.

How your body acclimates to running barefoot—and why it can be beneficial 

Remember how running across gravel, hot summer sidewalks, and beach sand was NBD when you were a kid? That protective shell that grew around your feet to support your childhood adventures may have disappeared for now, but Keil says you could earn it back in just a few months of barefoot running.

“The skin itself on the bottom of your foot becomes more durable, almost turning the texture of leather over time. The muscles in your feet and your calves also become stronger over weeks and months if you’re systematically strengthening them over time,” says Keil. In a way, people in the barefoot running space believe you can literally engineer the perfect running shoe out of the skin, muscles, and bones already in your feet. Wild, right?

While it’s important to note that much of the research on barefoot running has been mostly preliminary and conducted on small groups of participants, the findings are still worth talking about. As Keil suggested, running au naturel has been found to lessen ground reaction forces, which is a huge deal because it makes a high-impact sport like running a little less jarring to the body. Barefoot runners might also put less stress on their knees, spend more time in the air overall, and have an easier time striking their foot with a slight bend in the knee (which protects the joint and makes your steps more efficient).

Like running itself, barefoot running isn’t for everyone. Keil says that he has varied and ongoing conversations with patients who approach him asking for permission to leave their shoes behind.

How to know if barefoot running is right for you

When someone walks into Keil’s physical therapy office and says, “What do you think about barefoot running?” his answer varies.

“It really depends on who’s asking the question,” says Keil.  “If I have a runner who is on their way to run the Chicago Marathon in two weeks and they have a traditional shoe on and they say, ‘Hey, what do you think about me transitioning barefoot?’, I would say absolutely not in the next two weeks.” Learning to run barefoot takes months and years of practice; it’s not a snap decision you can make after years of running in shoes with thick foam heels, carbon plates, or other fancy features.

On the other hand, Keil says that if someone with a history of running injuries knocks on his door and asks for the 411 on barefoot running, he’s always happy to have the conversation. “If it’s someone who has gotten repeated injuries over the years as a runner, and they’ve tried everything but they keep getting injured, then I’ll talk,” he says. “I think there is quite a bit of value in moving away from traditional shoes,” explains Keil. However, he notes that someone with current injuries should always prioritize healing themselves before trying barefoot running.

Once he deems someone a good fit for the barefoot running lifestyle, Keil usually instructs runners to treat a tiny portion of the beginning of their run as barefoot practice—then switch back over to shoes. For example, you might run a quarter-mile barefoot for the first few weeks of training and then work yourself up slowly from there. To get the specifics on how to do that, the safest option is working with a coach or PT who can also give you strengthening moves to supplement your running.

If you transition into barefoot running too quickly, you risk causing other injuries (and hey, avoiding those was the whole point of this little experiment). “You could absolutely develop a problem if your foot isn’t ready to accommodate the stress that you’re going to put it through,” says Keil. “I use the analogy of going to the gym. If you haven’t gone to the gym in a year and you go and lift weights for four hours straight, you’re not going to be feeling good the next day. If you go in and you lift weights for 20 or 30 minutes, you’ll probably be okay the next day. It’s all about what your body is ready to handle at that time.” Remember race lesson number one: Don’t go out too fast.

All you FAQs about running barefoot, answered

1. Is running barefoot better than running in sneakers?

This is a complicated question with a lot of conflicting science behind it, but it really comes down to what’s best for you. If you’re someone who has been collecting miles in sneakers without issue, your best course may be: Don’t mess with a good thing. If you’re someone who’s dealt with injuries despite investing in expensive running shoes, then why not meet up with a sports doc or physical therapist and talk about your options?

2. Are minimalist running shoes similar to barefoot running?

Minimalist running shoes accomplish a similar goal while still giving you an extra buffer of support, but you won’t quite achieve the feeling of freedom so many barefoot runners enjoy on trails, roads, beaches, and more. Keil says that spending some time running in minimalist shoes can help you transition more seamlessly into that barefoot running life (or provide a nice test drive to see if you belong there in the first place). There’s a lot of overlap between the minimalist running shoe community and the barefoot running community, so you may find your people in either camp.

3. What if I’m still landing on my heel when I run barefoot?

This happens! If you find yourself in this situation, your best bet might be consulting a physical therapist or a running coach to see how you can adjust your form (or even if a toe-strike is the right choice for you).

Whether you’re running barefoot or not, your need to warm up: 

Experts Referenced
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