Barefoot Running: The FAQ’s

by A Manly Guest Contributor on May 17, 2012 · 131 comments

in Fitness, Health & Sports, Sports

Abebe Bikila, Ethiopian who trained for and won the 1960 Olympic marathon while barefoot.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Shaun Daws from Beginning Barefoot.

For millions of years, our ancestors spread around the globe, treading the earth barefoot over all manner of terrain. As we walked and ran, our feet developed an intricate web of nerves, matched only by those in our hands, which allow us to sense the smallest deviations in the ground. They became capable of withstanding fierce heat and blistering cold by altering the flow of blood and fluids found in our soles.

Over the past two thousand years, as we have moved from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian one, the importance of using the full advantages of our feet has been forgotten, in exchange for the comfort and ease of wearing padded shoes.

With the resurgence of walking and running as leisure activities, the importance of healthy feet is once again becoming a serious issue. On average, runners today can expect a 30-80% chance of injury, and this rate hasn’t changed since people started wearing running shoes. In contrast, most of the running injuries seen in the West are nearly non-existent in cultures where shoes are not habitually worn, such as Kenya and Ethiopia.

Recently, people around the globe have been rediscovering the benefits of running barefoot. Even Nike, whose shoes kicked off the jogging revolution nearly half a century ago, has started to release shoes that are designed to mimic barefoot running. For the most part, these have taken the form of “barefoot” shoes that promise to allow your feet to work as they were intended, without extra padding and motion control features to add weight and change how your feet contact the ground.

Despite the increase in popularity of barefoot running, it can be quite daunting to try to weed out what the pros, cons, dangers, and benefits are. The more you search online, the more contradicting opinions, facts, and anecdotes you will come across. So, to set the record straight and give you the most important stuff in one place, I’ve created this Barefoot Running FAQ.

1. Why barefoot running?

The barefoot running movement seems to have sprung up almost overnight a couple years ago. It was around this time that a book called Born to Run was published by author Christopher McDougall, who chronicled his search for an injury-free way to run. The book takes the reader on a journey through the Copper Canyon in Mexico, where a tribe of runners called the Tarahumara live and run incredible distances completely barefoot (or in simple sandals).

The publication of the book coincided with a Harvard study by Prof. Dan Lieberman, which showed that people who grow up running without shoes run differently than those of us who run shod. Though the study did not speculate as to whether barefoot running was better or worse than running in shoes, it did demonstrate that making the switch resulted in softer landings and reduced impact force.

The conclusion that many barefoot runners take from all this is that running unshod reduces the chance of injury from impact and repetitive stress. At the moment there have been precious few studies on the effects of running with and without shoes, but the hope is that the anecdotal evidence of the barefoot community will be borne out as more people become available to be included in studies.

2. Doesn’t it hurt?

If you do it wrong, then yes, it will hurt. If you do it right, however, it will probably still hurt a bit, but it will ease off as you get better at it. The reason for this is that when transitioning to barefoot running, even if you’re running in “barefoot” shoes, you’re changing how you run. This means that you’re using muscles that have likely been underused for years. It takes time for your body to get used to the change, and if you rush through this bit, it can take even longer to adjust.

Interestingly, the most common site for pain in new barefooters is not the soles of the feet as would be expected, but in the calves and Achilles tendons.

If you run in shoes, then you likely land heel-first every time you take a step. Heels aren’t meant to absorb the impact of your stride—only the padding of modern shoes allows the heel-first landing—and the shock goes up the leg to the knees and hips. When you transition to barefoot running, you will learn to land on your forefoot, which allows you to use your body’s natural shock absorbers: the arches, Achilles tendons, and lower legs. This transition takes time and as you get used to the new style of running it can be very easy to overdo it and find yourself needing to take a few days off to let your limbs recover.

One of the great things about barefoot running is that it’s unforgiving. The pain that you feel is your body’s way of letting you know that you’re doing something wrong. By listening to the pain, you can adjust your form, and before long, you’ll be running with excellent form, and pain-free. This is why a lot of barefoot running gurus say to start out on rough gravel instead of grass. The more pain you feel at first, the quicker you will learn to adjust, and the less likely you will be to develop bad habits.

3. How do you transition from running with shoes to running barefoot?

When you start using any muscles that have been dormant for a long time, it takes a while for them to get built up. It’s the same as if you’ve been a couch potato for years, then decide to go out for an afternoon of football with the boys. If you overdo it, you’re going to feel it.

You can lessen the amount of discomfort you feel during the transition period by taking several steps to get your body ready for running barefoot:

The 100-Up

An excellent preparatory exercise is called the 100-up, which is an exercise that has been used by track and field coaches for decades.

The exercise itself is simple: Take your shoes off and stand in place. Now lift one leg up to knee height, then place it back down, being sure to gently place it down, forefoot first. Now repeat with the second leg. Start slowly and work your way up to 100 reps (50 each leg). When you can do 100 of these back-to-back, try doing the same exercise, but faster. The point is not to do as many as you can, as fast as you can, but rather to take your time and focus on doing each repetition perfectly. Here’s a video showing how it’s done:

This deceptively simple exercise works nearly all the muscles involved in barefoot running, and lets your body start to build up the areas that will get the most work when you run. By mastering the 100-up before your first barefoot run, you will dramatically reduce the chance of overdoing it.

Stretching Your Achilles

If you’re a heel-striker, you will probably find that your Achilles tendons have grown tight from years of underuse, so when you finally get out there and start giving them a workout, you will likely induce micro-tears and even tendonitis. To avoid all this pain and aggravation, it’s important to stretch out your Achilles tendons and calves for a few days or even weeks before you do your first barefoot run. Simply stand with your heels hanging off of a step, and dip your heels down, then back up onto your tip-toes a few times. After a week of this, you should be much more prepared to make the transition to running unshod.

Ease Into It

Start your journey into barefoot running by doing a couple of short walks in bare feet or tacking a couple hundred meters of barefoot running to your usual run. Then slowly increase your mileage. Taking the first few weeks slowly will save you a lot of discomfort and make the transition process much more bearable.

4. Will my feet become calloused?

Your soles will also take a little time to adjust to being in contact with the ground. You may experience blisters at first, but this is not because your feet aren’t “tough” enough, rather, your form is not perfect yet and you are creating friction between your feet and the ground. As you learn to run with better form, the amount of friction on the feet is greatly reduced, to the point where your feet don’t need to protect themselves from the ground by developing blisters and callouses. If you ever get the chance to meet a seasoned barefoot runner, ask them if you can look at their soles. What you will see may surprise you: on the whole, the feet of barefoot runners are callous-free and tend to have a slightly puffy sole, with lovely, healthy skin that is kept fresh and new from the constant contact with the ground.

5. What about dirt, glass, syringes, infections, etc?

If there’s one thing that stops prospective barefoot runners from taking their first unshod steps, it’s the fear of treading on sharp objects, such as glass and needles. There is a perception that the roads are littered with all manner of foreign objects just waiting to puncture your feet. The truth is that the amount of glass out there is not nearly as high as you’d expect, and what glass there is is often safety glass from car windows, which is unlikely to cut you. By keeping your eyes open and planning your routes to avoid any likely danger spots (such as bars and convenience store parking lots), you will miss the vast majority of what’s out there.

The great thing about running barefoot is that even if you do happen to step on something sharp, your step is so light, and your foot so pliable, that though it may hurt a little, it’s unlikely to break the skin. The thing to remember is that the human foot evolved out there in nature, where there are all manner of sharp rocks, thorns, and sticks, so the debris found on city streets should not pose a significant problem.

6. Isn’t pavement too hard for bare feet?

Running in nature isn’t the lovely, springy experience that most people think it is. Trails can be incredibly hard, with all sorts of debris strewn about. In contrast, city streets are lovely highways that allow you to run farther and faster than you ever could in the woods.

Your feet are built to handle pretty much anything, and even in a city, the sensations underfoot are many and varied. As you start running barefoot, you will notice how many different types of terrain even a city block can include: pavement, grass, gravel, rough asphalt, sand…you name it. Running barefoot will greatly increase your awareness of terrain and you’ll never look at the road outside your house the same way again.

By learning to use your body’s built-in shock absorbers, you’ll find that even the hardest or roughest surfaces can be managed with ease. When you leave your shoes at home, you are leaving behind an inch or so of padding, but you’re regaining the use of your body’s natural springs which more than makes up for it.

7. Should I get a pair of those feet-gloves?

Minimalist, or “barefoot” shoes are getting more and more popular every day it seems. Like regular shoes, they now come in a huge range of colors, shapes, and styles, and choosing the right pair can be daunting.

The best way to select a pair is to first try running without shoes at all. Give it a go, and see how you like it. You may decide not to buy a pair, in which case, you can spend the $100+ on something else. If you still want shoes at that point, then at least you have a basic understanding of how your feet should move and feel.

The best minimal shoes are those that most closely mimic the function of the foot. They may or may not have toes, but they should have very thin soles, be very lightweight (ideally less than 5oz), and not require socks. It’s highly recommended that you try them out in-store and not just take a chance online, as many of these shoes will fit differently from regular running shoes, especially as most minimals don’t require socks. This will also give you a chance to talk to a (hopefully) experienced salesperson who can ensure you have the correct fit.

8. How far can you run in bare feet?

How far and fast you can run barefoot is largely dependent on how much running you do. For a first-time barefooter, you may only be able to manage a couple hundred meters, but there are plenty of experienced barefoot runners, such as Ken Saxton, who have run full marathons at fast paces without any trouble at all.

Still have a question about barefoot running? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer it!

____________________

Shaun Daws has been an AoM reader since the beginning and has been closely involved in the annual Movember effort. He runs BeginningBarefoot.com, a site dedicated to helping people to transition into barefoot running safely and enjoyably. Follow him on Twitter or visit the BeginningBarefoot Facebook page.

 

{ 131 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Barefoot Dawsy May 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm

@fuchikoma that’s really frustrating, and there are definitely places where debris can be an issue. However, for every place that has broken bottles strewn about there are likely dozens that haven’t got that issue. It might mean looking elsewhere for a more foot-friendly place to run, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

102 PiesMagicos May 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm

http://www.invisibleshoe.com

I bought my “shoes” from this site for about 30$ and never had a issue with treading across uncertain ground. These are about as close to full ‘barefoot’ as you can get.

103 Barefoot Dawsy May 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm

@PiesMagicos I’ve got a pair of those myself….great value for money and excellent for running

104 Keith May 31, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Most people will NOT benefit from barefoot running, and most people WILL get injured from barefoot running on harder surfaces.

105 Ben May 31, 2012 at 9:39 pm

I grew up in a small town in the far north of Western Australia, the population was mostly aboriginal. As a result lot of the white kids at school tended to emulate the aboriginals and as a result none of us ever wore shoes until we got to high school. thorns and sharp rocks wern’t much of a hinderance, we ran all of our sports carnivals barefoot.

106 robert June 4, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Growing up out in the country, spring and summertime saw us rarely with shoes on. Flying around the makeshift bases in the yard, in a game of baseball. Even into my early 20′s in the Air Force barracks, out in the common areas of grass, I created several wiffle ball/frisbee and soccer games barefeet required!
I disagree with Keith’s statement only because I have gone from running with shoes to running without. By taking it easy and ensuring a good proper stretch, warm up and cool down one can prevent injuries. The feet can become injured through overuse, but a good break in period can reduce the majority of problems.

107 Steven June 4, 2012 at 7:13 pm

I remember running barefoot as a child up and down the street all day and still to this day my feet are tough as nails. Sure I’d stub my toe once in a while but you get used to the pain, I also experienced that I ran faster then anyone else but when I wore shoes I would run slower. Just my experience.

108 Ben June 5, 2012 at 5:09 am

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. There’s a reason we wear shoes. 99.9% of pro runners where shoes, I doubt there’s many ultra runners who go barefoot. Go run your 5ks barefoot but when it comes time to run for real wear shoes.

109 Lex June 6, 2012 at 6:03 pm

As a barefoot runner for the past four years, I’ve met several people who have had bad experiences in their attempts at barefoot running. Almost all these bad experiences boiled down to two reasons. 1) They didn’t take the time to learn how to make the transition. 2) They didn’t go slow enough. Pure and simple.

Great post, Dawsey.

110 Nwoods84 June 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Barefoot or minimal footwear makes sense on trails and natural surfaces but running that way on asphalt or pavement is a recipe for disaster.

111 Ben June 12, 2012 at 11:55 am

@Nwoods84: Not true.

112 Jane June 14, 2012 at 8:18 am

As soon as I read this article I stood up and tried the 100-up out, just curious to see how it would feel. I did about 30, however in the days after the side of my right foot has been really hurting, which I’ve never ever had before. Just wondering whether anyone could tell me – is this the 100-up working or something completely different??
Thanks a lot!

113 Jason June 15, 2012 at 1:45 pm

I switched to minimalist running months ago (I run in NB Minimus shoes) and I’m never going back. I have less to no knee pain, and I run faster and farther than I’ve ever. I did my research, took my time, and properly transitioned. It sucked at first because my Calves and Achilles would be sore, but after a few weeks, it just feels so much better. Of course, this is my personal experience.

114 Mark September 20, 2012 at 11:49 am

I disagree with Keith’s statement that most people will NOT benefit from bf running, and that most people WILL get injured. How can he make such a bold statement? Does he have proof? I don’t believe it for a second. Anyway, speaking strictly from my experience, while I have gotten blisters and some sharp objects stuck that have caused some pain, I no longer have knee pain nor do I get shin splints anymore, while they were common (especially the knee pain) while running with shoes. I made the switch about 2 years ago, running either bf or in Vibrams; I have run in shoes just once since then, and that was during a Warrior Dash obstacle course type race since I wasn’t sure how my Vibrams would handle any sharp rocky surfaces. Anyway, I am convinced that bf or minimalist running is far better than running in shoes, unless a runner uses proper techniques, as shoes do have their place. But will bf running injure most people and benefit very few? I don’t believe that for even one second!

115 GT October 17, 2012 at 10:20 pm

haha hows old mate Keith. Just throws out a bold statemate with zero evidence to support his claims. I first tore my Quad when I was 13, torn hamstring at 14, slightly torn groin at 16, hammy and quads again at 18 & 19. Plus minor strains constantly throughout that time. After that I quit football because I couldn’t put up with it anymore. I would still run, the strains and pulls and twinges of leg muscles would always occur. I ordered a new pair of shoes online. Mizuna Nirvanas. Supremely supported, strong arch support…i thought maybe this shoe with its insane support would help. After the first run I was feeling twinges already. Got home, threw the shoes on my floor. And thought. Well that was 200$ well spent haha. I looked at my feet and had visions of marathon champion Bikila winning the 1960 marathon in barefeet. And I heard stories of Ethiopian and Kenyan Olympic athletes always preferring to train when they are back home in no shoes at all. If anyone knows how to run, it is those guys. So i jumped out side and began a run…barefoot to road. It was undoubtably, still to this day one of the greatest running experiences I have ever had. Freedom. Absolute freedom. You feel primative. You feel like you are an animal who is using its body correctly for the first time. Like cheetas can naturally just run with such grace, that was the feeling. I got home….feet bleeding, cut up and brusied. Slowly build up the thickness of your soles and you will be able to run for longer with so much more ease than ever.

116 Rob Smith October 20, 2012 at 1:12 am

Forgive me guys, I’m a slow learner! What are the benefits of running barefoot?

117 Jordan Fountain November 4, 2012 at 1:59 pm

im in the army so we run a lot and i swear by these shoes. http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/index.htm if you take the time and learn how to run barefoot it is very rewarding. i run on and off road with these shoes and barefoot.

118 Aaron November 14, 2012 at 7:59 pm

I grew up in the middle of Kansas. Played football, wrestled and ran track. I went bare foot any time I could (track spikes only on meets, no wrestling shoes until matches or varsity challenges, etc.) I moved to Kansas City when I was 20, went into sales and spent most my time in dress shoes. i recently got back into training and bought a pair of bare foot shoes (adidas) I just wore them all the time for about 2 or 3 weeks, jogging 2 or 3 times each week and not only has it improved my athletic ability, but also made my dress shoes more comfortable. My calves and ligaments were soar during the adjustment, but well worth it. The one thing I will NEVER go back to regular shoes for is Plyometrics. I wear the “toeshoes” during for traction and a little protection, but I got faster and stronger than all my training partners in regular shoes. Try it, you will love the difference, especially in Plyometrics.

119 Pier November 26, 2012 at 10:49 pm

I love this blog but there is lots of really bad advice here.
Barefoot running is not for everyone and is not a guaranteed way to run pain free as McDougall heavily promotes. If you ever have the chance to hang out with him in person ask him to join you for a run- he won;t because he still has injuries.
Born to Run is a nice narrative and I enjoyed reading it, but there is some context that needs to be considered.
The Tarahumara grew up running that way, are all on the lighter side of things in terms of body weight, under 6 feet, are running on uneven, mixed terrain, etc.
The human foot is well adapted to uneven, three dimensional surfaces but you and I are mostly on flat concrete or asphalt.
If you look at the feet of our early ancestors they all had high-arched, rigid feet. This is a great combination for uneven terrain and that is where ‘barefoot’ or ‘minimal’ running makes some sense.
If you are a flat-footed over-pronator it will take you much longer to transition to barefoot running than someone who is neutral, if it works out for you at all.
You definitely need to start from scratch and very slowly build up your distance by no more than 10% than what you did the previous week to avoid injury.
There is no gold standard of what kind of strike is best. In a Japanese study on elite runners it was found that 80% of mid-foot strikers transition to heel-striking and only 3 mid-foot strikers actually finished mid-foot striking. Plenty of Olympic athletes have broken records heel striking.
My advice is to get fit for running shoes at a place that has a fitting process that takes into account your biomechanics and watches you run.
If you are going to try minimal/barefoot running educate yourself well as to what it takes and if it is right for you.
Mix up surfaces as much as you can.
Every runner who has been at it gets an injury or strain – there is no such thing as a magic bullet that will eliminate injury.
McDougall has been very ir-responsible by taking a barefoot running only approach as it is very inappropriate to recommend it to every one as a one-size-fits-all solution.

120 Dan December 10, 2012 at 5:19 am

Barefoot has helped me with back problems by strengthening my feet, it could also just be a placebo effect but hell I love the feel of mud in my toes!

Great article!

121 Dallas January 12, 2013 at 1:52 am

I have been running minimalist… a lot of people think of barefoot running as nothing on… which can be very dangerous in an urban environment. However, I run minimalist. I use the Luna Sandals made by Barefoot Ted and other zero drop shoes when I need to be uniform for PT. If one eases into minimalist running it is a great experience. I ran a marathon in my Vibrams, my first to be exact, and I ran a 3:57. I did all of my training in vibrams as well. I loved every miniute of it.

122 Rachel February 7, 2013 at 9:34 pm

While this article attempts to suggest that barefoot running is a way to “reduce the chance of injury from impact and repetitive stress,” there are multiple contradictions to that statement. The article states that even if a runner is doing barefoot running the right way, it will hurt. Although the body has natural shock absorbers (arches, Achilles tendon, etc), they are not built to support the stress of barefoot running on hard surfaces for extended periods of time if you’ve worn shoes for your entire life. Your feet grow accustomed to the extra support and stability that shoes provide and they have a difficult time re-adjusting to that lack of stress. Using Abebe Bikila as an example of a barefoot runner is irrelevant because he never wore shoes growing up – his feet were accustomed to the lack of support that running shoes could have provided for him. Barefoot running not only increases your chances for calf and Achilles tendon pain, tendonitis, and blisters, but it also limits the places that you can run. The article suggests that “trails can be incredibly hard, with all sorts of debris strewn about…city streets are lovely highways that allow you to run farther and faster than you ever could in the woods.” Why would you want to limit yourself in regards to where you can run? In my opinion, I would much rather deal with the extra weight and extra support of running shoes than put myself at risk for unnecessary injury.

123 Chris February 8, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Wow, I’m surprised that an article had to be written on this subject. I always thought it was just, well, normal to be barefoot. I grew up in the corn fields of Illinois and Chicago, and my family all originally came from the countryside of Michigan. We only wear shoes when going somewhere where being barefoot is considered ‘rude’ (stores and the like), and of course in winter, though I usually walk through the snow barefoot.

The soles of my feet are tough as nails, and I really hate wearing shoes as it’s uncomfortable to me. In fact, a bad pair of shoes may have been the cause of my arches collapsing at a young age.

Someone above said it as well, but I run faster barefoot than with shoes on. When I wear shoes, I unconsciously rely on my heel more due to the padding. When I’m barefoot, I solely use the ball of my foot and ‘feel’ lighter. I’m also far more agile when barefoot. The only downside to being barefoot is you lose the ability to side-step quickly on some surfaces and you’ll slip.

124 isaac April 4, 2013 at 6:47 pm

I’ve been barefoot running since 2008 and haven’t looked back since. Barefoot running forces you to strike with your toes instead of the heel of your foot.

125 Kevin R. April 5, 2013 at 10:48 pm

CAUTION: No where have I read any warnings about grinding the skin off. I ran about ten miles on the beach and wore the bottoms of my toes and feet flat and bleeding as if they had been put to a power sander. It took three days to stop bleeding. I never felt the pain while running because the cold tide numbed my feet. Oh man, though, it hurt later like fire! Keep your first runs short until you perfect your style and callouses. Sand may be soft, but it grinds your skin, so be aware of that.

126 Andy May 1, 2013 at 11:26 am

Great article! However, I’m not entirely sure how accurate the part about the calluses. From my personal experience, feet don’t get calluses the way hands and fingers do, the skin just gets tougher.

127 Michael N. May 15, 2013 at 11:39 pm

I’ve read a lot of interesting stuff online about walking and running barefoot, and this article is among them. I say if it works for you, that’s awesome. Me, I think I’ll stick to shoes; I may be dying to kick them off after school every day, but at least they’re comfortable and familiar when I’m out and about. Besides, I like my Chucks. They look cool.

128 Robert May 20, 2013 at 1:15 pm

I never tried to run barefoot, maybe only when i was a child. I will give it a try on my next run and see how it feels.

129 Mark May 25, 2013 at 6:20 pm

@Kevin R
This should not be the case. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned him very much before this, but you should check out Barefoot Ken Bob’s book, “Barefoot Running Step By Step”. I’m certainly no expert on this matter, but he’s widely considered to be the most experienced out there when it comes to barefoot running, starting decades ago, and his website has been around since 1997 if I recall correctly. I bought his book, and if you follow his advice, you’re utilizing the forces of gravity much more efficiently to the point where your feet are moving in more of an up-and-down motion, meaning that you’re not wearing the skin off the bottom of your feet in a violent, bloody manner. His methods all seem to highlight being gentle on your feet, and the advantages that has for your body. I personally believe that anybody interested in getting into barefoot (or even minimalist running) should check out his book. Even if you don’t kick off your shoes, I feel like working on your “barefoot” technique can even make you a better shod runner.

130 Levi August 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm

I’ve been going barefoot (walking) for about a month, and during a 30 mile runforfun I did about 1/2 mile barefoot. Well, I consider my legs, core, feet, ankles to be of sufficient strength. I’m 5’8″ about 185 and it’s not alot of fat, though not the 3 percent I was in the army.
When I set out to do a barefoot run (as far as I could…I took minimalist shoes in my backpack), I only made it about 1/2 a mile, and got SERIOUS hotspots on both feet, to the end that I can’t even run with shoes.
I’m thinking I need to back off on speed (oh I wanna GO!) and see how far I can jog barefoot, once the hotspots heal. We have a great asphalt trail well maintained that goes for some 80 miles, so path is not a problem.
Oh, and I am an experienced life-long competitive runner, making the transition.

131 George February 2, 2014 at 7:13 pm

This 69 Yr old loves running Barefoot.All Terrians.5 miles everyother day. Feels Great. Is Great.Doctor told me 4 years go to stop running or have knee surgery.I started running Bare foot No more Knee Pain.

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