The Basics of Barefoot Running
Get the facts on this new running trend. But, check with your doctor before you decide if barefoot running is for you.

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Picture of foot on grass The Basics of Barefoot Running

One reason why running appeals to so many people is its simplicity. No advanced skill is required, it can be done anytime, anywhere, and you only need one piece of equipment: a good pair of running shoes.

Some people, though, believe running can be even simpler than that. Just leave the running shoes at home.

Behind the barefoot running rage
It's riding a new tide of popularity, but barefoot running is not new. People have been running barefoot or with less-supportive shoes for centuries. In fact, the modern running shoe wasn't invented until the 1970s.  But the barefoot trend is now getting more attention thanks to best-selling books and a vocal, passionate community of barefoot runners.

Barefoot running enthusiasts and a few studies claim there are advantages to running without shoes, including:

  • Improved foot strength
  • Better balance
  • Fewer injuries
  • A more natural running style

Why the benefits? It may have to do with how the foot strikes the ground and the effects of the design of athletic shoes:

  • Foot strikes. One study found that barefoot runners usually hit the ground forefoot first (forefoot strike) or mid-foot first (mid-foot strike). Runners who wear athletic shoes tend to land heel first (rear-foot strike). Heel-first strikers hit the ground at a force 1.5 to 3 times their body weight. Experts say that forefoot and mid-foot first strikers hit the ground at a lesser force, which may lower the risk of injury. Running forefoot or mid-foot first may also help build foot and ankle strength.
  • Athletic shoe design. Running shoes are made to reduce the chance of injury. The shoe absorbs some of the shock of striking the ground and the cushioned heel makes running more comfortable. But some people say that arch support and stiff soles may weaken foot muscles and arch strength, which can lead to injury.

Too good to be true?
Before you hit the ground running without shoes, take note. Experts from the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) say that more research is needed to sort out the possible risks and benefits of barefoot running.

It's unknown if barefoot running really lowers the risk of injuries. No good studies have been done comparing the injuries of barefoot runners to runners who wear shoes. 

In fact, barefoot running can actually cause problems. If you step on something, you could get wounded and develop an infection. Barefoot running may also put extra stress on the feet, since there are no shoes to help absorb some of the shock.

Before you go barefoot
If you want to try barefoot running, check with your doctor first. Running without shoes may not be safe for some people, such as those with diabetes. The APMA says that all runners should talk to a podiatrist (foot care doctor) with a background in sports medicine about all aspects of running.

Another option: minimalist shoes
The athletic shoe industry is well aware of the barefoot running movement and is responding to it. Several companies now offer "minimalist" shoes. These shoes are a middle-ground between traditional athletic shoes and going barefoot. Depending on the brand, minimalist shoes may:

  • Offer little or no cushioning, support, or stability control.
  • Have "toe slots". Like hand gloves, the shoe fits around each toe individually.
  • Weigh half as much as regular running shoes.
  • Protect the soles of your feet from injury

Always follow the directions that come with minimalist shoes. For example, the manufacturer may suggest only wearing the shoes for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, once a week at first.

By Jenilee Matz, MPH, Staff Writer
Created on 02/21/2011
Updated on 03/01/2011
Sources:
  • American Podiatric Medical Association. APMA position statement on barefoot running.
  • American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. Running shoes - minimalist running footwear.
  • Jungers WL. Barefoot running strikes back. Nature. 2010;463(7280);433-434.
  • Liberman DE, Venkadesan M, Werbel WA, et al. Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature. 2010;463(7280):531-536.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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