Even though the barefoot running fad has waned, experts agree that runners still have much to gain much by going bare. You don’t need to throw out your shoes, begin running in minimalist sandals or spend painful months adapting. Instead focus on brief bursts of barefoot striding to potentially make your running faster, easier and more injury resistant.
No Quick Fix
Barefooting, and the minimal movement as a whole, ran into problems by claiming too much. Converts preached that once we took off our shoes, we’d all instantly adapt to a more efficient way of running and never get injured again. Neither experience nor research lived up the claims: Runners still got hurt, many failed to find long-term stride changes and most simply found it painful.
Research has shown that only a few runners—50 percent or less —will adapt a new stride simply by changing shoes. “There’s a fair bit of evidence saying that even going barefoot, a number of people won’t be able to change how they run,” says Simon Bartold, podiatrist, biomechanical expert and shoe company consultant. “Those things are pretty hardwired.” So, while it could happen that you are one of the easy adapters, don’t count on a magical new stride as one of the immediate benefits of going bare.
More likely, one of the first things that will happen when you take your shoes off is that your feet and lower legs will get sore—and thus stronger, if managed correctly. You use foot muscles more when you’re bare because the shoe isn’t propping you up. “Wearing shoes all the time compromises foot strength,” says podiatrist Brian Fullem, author of The Runner’s Guide to Healthy Feet and Ankles. “If you support it all the time, you’re not using those muscles.”
Benno Nigg, University of Calgary researcher and author of Biomechanics of Sport Shoes explains in more detail: “The muscles around the ankle should stabilize, the muscles in the foot should build the arch and shorten the plantar fascia. All these things disappear, because you don’t need them anymore. The more shoe you build the less you use those muscles.”
Getting bare wakes up your feet. “You’re engaging muscles that, if you’re in a shoe, you’re never going to engage,” says Orangeburg, N.Y.-based sports podiatrist Rob Conenello. “They are passively moving along. You’re never going to use the small flexors as much, and some not at all, unless you’re barefoot.”
Why is foot strength important? For one, it can enable you to run in less shoe, one that doesn’t support and inhibit arch movement as much. And a 2016 study from the University of Western Australia showed that shoes that prevented the arch from compressing and bouncing back with its natural elastic recoil increased the muscular cost of running by up to 6 percent.
Balance at the Base
Stronger feet also create a better balance. Nigg explains that if you have strength in your feet and in the small muscles around the ankle, they can react quickly and efficiently to create balance. But if those muscles are weak, then the imbalance becomes greater and requires activation of larger muscles up the chain.
“The concept is that, if you want to balance something, if it goes a little over, the muscles at the bottom react very quickly, because they are short,” Nigg says. “When you don’t have small muscles strong enough, you have to do everything with the big muscles, even the small little things. Which means, if you want to stabilize, you have to use the Achilles tendon, and the Achilles tendon is not very good at that.” This can lead to injuries such as Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis. Plus, using the large muscles requires more energy.
Reed Ferber, professor of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary and director of the Running Injury Clinic, points out, however, that there is little clinical evidence that barefoot running can create these strengths. As with stride adaptations, strength reactions are not uniform: studies show that you’re not guaranteed to get stronger simply by taking your shoes off.
Ferber, Nigg and others recommend various foot strengthening exercises such as short-foot doming, towel pulls and 360-degree isometric ankle presses. Most of these require taking your shoes off and setting your feet free to move and work, which will make you a more robust runner even if you never run bare, and can enable you to wear and reap the rewards of less supportive shoes.
READ MORE: Why ‘Foot Core’ is Important
In the end, what is guaranteed by going bare is an increase in variety. And variety, as much as anything else, is the key to injury prevention and improvement in running form. Variability helps in two ways: it spreads the stress of running around the body and it provides a context for your neuromuscular system to explore and adapt new patterns.
“I emphasize to my patients that increasing the variability within their level of tolerance is a method to reduce injury risk,” say sports podiatrist Paul Langer. “One of the risk factors for injury in runners is a lack of variability. Many of us run relatively constant paces in relatively straight lines on paved surfaces in the same shoes each workout.”
Ferber concurs, pointing out that mixing up your training and your shoes to prevent injury is well-grounded in science. “The same principle would apply to barefoot running,” he says. “Variability is a good thing, so engaging in some barefoot running as part of your overall training program could help to vary the load applied to the musculoskeletal system.”
In terms of stride, variability is important because the body develops preferred patterns over time. While initially selected to be most efficient, these can become ruts that keep us from changing when our fitness, mobility or strengths change. “We need to break out of those ruts,” says John Kiely, Irish performance scientist who studies neuromuscular patterns. “And to do that, we need to do something different.”
Kiely says that after changing our body, we have to alert the nervous system that we have new resources and convince it to try new patterns. We need to recalibrate the controller. “Change proprioception, change strength, change tissue capacity—then it’s got to be shaken up,” he says. This is where you’re likely to see form changes from going bare—subtle, unconscious adaptations made possible because of improved mobility and strengths, spurred by shaking up your stride patterns.
Barefoot running is a great way to shake things up, as it changes patterns far more than changing shoes. “The differences between conventionally structured shoes and co-called minimalist shoes isn’t nearly as much as between conventional shoes and barefoot, so I think it is best to go barefoot to truly feel the difference,” Langer says.
Going bare also opens up new sensory channels you’ve learned to ignore. “I don’t think you realize how much sensory feedback you get from your feet until you kick off your shoes,” Langer says. “It gets you more in touch with your body,” Conenello says. “More in touch with what your form is, your natural position.”
How do you start running bare? You bend down, untie your laces and pull your shoes off. Seriously, it’s about that simple.
The important thing is to keep it easy. “As a starting point,” says Langer. “I advise my patients to find a nice grass field such as athletic fields at a nearby school and do a 5-minute barefoot cooldown at the end of a workout. If they do this twice a week they can gradually increase the duration and intensity if they like it.”
Mark Cucuzzella, a physician and running store owner who teaches healthy running courses around the country, takes runners through a gentle progression on any surface. Once barefoot, they start by doing soft, gentle two-leg hops—10 forward, 10 back. They advance to a short one-leg hop. Then, with a very light, low stride, they jog gently for 30–50 yards. That may be it for the first day. Eventually, they increase their turnover to hit an easy, long-run pace, and then a faster 5K pace.
Many runners find doing a few strides—six to 10 times up and down a sports field at different paces—provides all the benefits they desire. Others enjoy the sensation and work up to doing some of their runs or speed workouts bare. The goal isn’t to become a barefoot runner but to continue providing variety and training stimulus, so do something that is fun and comfortable, something you will do regularly.
“I would advocate that for an average runner, incorporating barefoot training as 10 percent of their overall volume will help to minimize the risk of injury,” Ferber says,
But he warns that those with weakness in the calf and ankle need to be particularly careful, and there is no set time frame for adapting. “For one runner, an 8-week program might be ideal but for another an 8-month program might work best,” he says. Langer echoes this: “As with anything, there is such a thing as too much so they need to gradually increase and listen to their body for what feels like the right amount.”
One Last Word
Loosen up and have fun. Going bare may be a training tool, but it need not be an onerous one. Rekindle the childlike joy of running free and you’ll do it more often, plus get more from it as your body finds its relaxed, natural movement. And as your feet get stronger, you renew your connection with the ground and your stride returns to your natural patterns. You may even begin to feel smooth, lithe and cat-like when you’re bare, and in all of your running.
READ MORE: How Runners Can Get Stronger