In the world of fitness, some exercises just lend themselves to bare feet—yoga, barre and pilates, for instance, all come to mind. When done correctly, barefoot running can also be a useful practice to increase balance, strength and resilience in the muscles of your legs and feet.
This “minimalist” approach is by no means a new concept. In many cultures, such as Ethiopia, Mexico, Japan and Native America, people have been running barefoot for centuries as part of a deep-rooted connection to nature and the earth, says Runner’s World. This time-honored ritual has been rediscovered and co-opted by modern runners who find that ditching their sneakers actually makes them better athletes.
If you’re interested in this form of running, don’t untie those laces and sprint off barefoot just yet. Educate yourself on the mechanics, benefits and foot care first so you can prevent injuries and maximize your workout.
What are the benefits of barefoot running?
Just as its name would indicate, barefoot running is simply running without shoes—or with minimalist shoes. This requires more from the muscles and tissues in your arches, soles, flexors, ankles and base of the legs, which can easily weaken over time when running in shoes. The reason: these areas are not activated in a full range-of-motion, based on data from the Scientific Reports journal.
However, when you choose to go barefoot, your “muscles around the ankle stabilize, [and] the muscles in the foot build the arch and shorten the plantar fascia,” adds Benno Nigg, a researcher in the field of kinesiology and author of the book Biomechanics of Sports Shoes.
This is important because, as your feet absorb the shock of running, which stimulates the muscle elasticity to recoil—or bounce back. That movement reduces strain and impact on other areas such as the knees, shins and hamstrings.
Conversely, shoes inhibit the arches from using their natural sequence of compression and recoil, leading to fatigued muscles and increased energetic cost on the body, according to research from the University of Western Australia.
In other words, barefoot running allows your feet to move unrestricted as they were designed to. This has the potential to enhance gait, stride and other functions that will make you a more competitive runner.
What is the proper form to maintain safety and efficacy?
Barefoot running is entirely safe when it’s done the right way. Your foot muscles need to gradually adjust to this new level of exertion, so the transition should be incremental—and don’t forget about stretching before you head out for a run, even more important when you’re running barefoot.
Ahead of even a short run, use dynamic stretching to create flexibility in your feet. Basic stretches like point-and-flex, calf raises, heel lifts, toe scrunches and circuits, or ankle extensions are useful to target all the different muscles, joints and tissues, according to Aaptiv.
Next, acclimate yourself to the feel of running without sneakers on a surface that provides cushion, like grass, sand or a rubber track. Begin at a slow pace and stop after 10 to 15 minutes. As your foot muscles strengthen, add more time. You’ll still be sore, but you won’t risk pulling a muscle or over-working your underused foot muscles.
What is the best barefoot running technique?
Using correct form is one of the most reliable methods of decreasing your risk of injury, which include plantar fasciitis, runner’s knee, stress fractures, Achilles tendonitis or shin splints.
To get it right, make sure your spine is aligned with a neutral arc. “If you’re running too tall, your feet will hit the ground too far in front of your pelvis and centre of mass – also known as overstriding – which generates braking force and slows you down,” according to experts at Runner’s World. Keep other standard posture cues in mind as well: arms loose, shoulders relaxed, hips stacked under the torso, and knees ahead of the feet.
Cadence and foot strike are the last two components of barefoot running technique, but they are also two of the most foundational. Cadence refers to the length and pace of your stride, and when your feet are bare, it requires less impact on them to run with a quick, short cadence, suggests the British Journal of Sports Medicine, as opposed to a long cadence that reduces the number of steps you take but exerts more force than normal on the soles of your feet.
When it comes to foot strike, there are three ways to land—forefoot, midfoot and rearfoot. A forefoot strike is most beneficial for a barefoot runner, according to research on biomechanics from the scientific journal Nature and Harvard University.
This strike pattern means that you land on the balls of your feet which is the padded area between the toes and arch. With this approach, the heel just barely skims the ground, and the released energy is converted more efficiently since the balls have a natural spring in them. A forefoot strike can also decrease pronation which bolsters the arch and strengthens the tendons around it.
How should you care for the feet to minimize injury risks?
Finally, you need to be intentional about a foot care as part of your post-exercise recovery when running barefoot. Use these tips to build a post-run routine into your stretching.
- Exfoliate your soles with moisturizer and a pumice stone. Because your feet will encounter many different elements and terrain, they could be more prone than usual to cracks, dryness or blisters. While these eventually form calluses to toughen and protect your soles when running barefoot, they can also cause pain and irritation. To soothe the affected areas, rub a pumice stone gently over them until the abrasive skin feels smoother, and then apply lotion afterward, Harvard Health
- Roll a tennis ball under your feet. One issue that runners can suffer is plantar fasciitis, or inflammation of the connective tissue on the bottom of your foot. While running barefoot with proper form (as mentioned above) can decrease the risk of plantar fasciitis, if you do experience this injury, you can decrease the tension and soreness by rolling your arch back-and-forth over a tennis ball. This exercise is part of a technique called myofascial release which uses mild but sustained pressure to heal restrictions in the fascia tissues and improve range-of-motion, suggests Manual Therapy.
- Soak your feet in water and Epsom salt. If you run in warmer climates or seasons, your feet can become overheated which then causes them to swell. If this happens, immerse your feet in a tepid water bath treated with Epsom salts after finishing your workout. Scientifica explains that both the cool temperature of the water and the anti-inflammatory properties of the salt’s magnesium content, will combine to ease your inflamed joints or muscles and provide relief to your swollen feet.
Are you ready to run barefoot?
If you’re ready to trade in your running shoes for the freedom of bare feet, use this guide to make the transition safely and correctly. If you train smart and follow these tips, over time, barefoot running can make you a stronger, faster and more resilient runner.