The numerous benefits of barefoot running – How the rewards outweigh the risks

Barefoot running
Half Marathon Barefoot run

Barefoot running background

Barefoot running occurs naturally as a child. As an adult, it usually begins once you have read “Born to Run”, by Christopher McDougall. At least it did for me. One late summer day in 2010, while reading McDougall’s book about the Tarahumara Indians of Copper Canyon in Mexico, I decided to do something I had yet to even consider. 

Overcoming the anxiety of what the neighbors would think, I jogged about 100 meters barefoot up the road and quickly went inside. The sensation I felt connecting with the pavement was amazing. I was no longer running. Every step was one of sensation. Like electricity running through my body, what I felt with every step–through the over 200,000 nerve endings in the soles of my feet–was instantaneously felt throughout my body to the ends of the hairs on my head.

After this unforgettable experience, there was no turning back to running shoes. Barefoot running gave the movement a whole new meaning. It became fun and not a chore. It became a want and not a must. Running became explorative and not exercise. For the next several months I slowly and impatiently transitioned from shod to bare, using my running shoes as hand weights when not in use.

Can you get injured from barefoot running?

Running injuries occur with or without shoes. Other factors to consider are previous injury history, overtraining, fatigue, technique, etc. Most of my injuries resulted from simply overdoing it. I enjoyed it too much. Eventually, my body forced me to listen. Blood blisters, calf strains, and the worst was a hairline fracture in my left fibula sustained during a 10K race. I still managed to hobble across the finish line.

The most frequently asked questions are ‘Doesn’t it hurt?’ and ’Don’t your feet get cold?’ The answer to both is rarely. Occasionally I step on something sharp. However, after seven years and 2,000 miles of barefoot running, only three small objects penetrated my skin and all were removed with tweezers–a must have. Unlike shoes whose soles wear down over time, the soles of your feet thicken with use, making objects more difficult to penetrate.

Regarding cold weather, as long as my feet are warm from the start, they usually stay warm. It can become a game of mind over matter and where I focus my mental energy. I use my “heat to feet” mantra and actively think about transferring the heat from my upper torso to my lower extremities when running in cold weather. Your body also adapts over time.

Physical benefits of barefoot running

Toenail fungus and runner’s toe are not an issue for me. There are more sweat glands in your feet per square inch than in any other part of your body: 250,000 glands per foot! Barefooting naturally allows your feet to breathe, sweat, and air dry while running. It helps get rid of sock tan lines! Splashing in puddles is also great for cooling off and having fun too.

Barefoot running has built-in anti-injury mechanisms. First, I run shorter distances as it is more physically and mentally demanding. The longest races I have run are half marathons. Second, my pads generally need a day to repair, so I rarely run back to back days. Third, the more I listen to my body, the more I am able to slow down and stop before an injury happens. Fourth, is the benefit of earthing, also known as grounding.

Finally, barefoot running lessens the impact on your knees and hips. Leg stride is shorter and your feet naturally fall underneath your body. Cadence is quicker making foot impact lighter. The entire foot and lower leg are engaged like a shock absorber (Photos 1 & 2). The toes act as stabilizers ensuring balance (Photo 3). A heel strike impact goes directly from your heel bone to your knee and hip joints (Photo 4).

Barefoot running
Photo 1: Foot muscles, ligaments, and tendons fully engaged, absorbing shock upon impact.

barefoot running
Photo 2: Lower leg muscles, ligaments, and tendons fully engaged, absorbing shock upon impact.

Barefoot running
Photo 3: Toes splayed for balance and grip

Barefoot running
Photo 4: Heel bone directly impacting the surface. No use of foot or lower leg. Ouch!

For more information on running economy and technique, watch the short video from Dr. Mark Cucuzzella on Principles of Natural Running

Heel versus forefoot impact experiment

Heel strike: Stand barefoot on a hard surface.  Strike one foot on the floor with just your heel 10 times with some force. How did it feel? Where did you feel the impact?

Forefoot strike: Using your other foot and with the same force, strike the ball of your foot 10 times. Have your heel gently touch the floor and bounce up again. How did it feel? Where did you feel the impact?

Body and Mind Transformation

Before barefoot running, my feet had little to no arch. I have now developed an arch as my feet flex and strengthen with every step. This realignment naturally autocorrects the body from the ground up–remember the hairline fracture–impacting how I stand and walk. I even welcomed the slight gain in height due to a few millimeters with new footpad growth!

Barefoot running involves body and mind. I never run with headphones. Most of my attention goes towards running form and scanning the ground for potential hazards. It is like playing a video game. Look away for too long and…Gotcha! A 30-minute run averaging 180 steps a minute translates to about 5,400 decisions of where to place your feet. That requires some attention.

I had to learn how to run before I could walk

Watch an infant walk without shoes. What do you notice? The child is on her toes. The gait looks more like a cross between walking and running. The child leans slightly forward and she is off! In essence that is running. Watch a toddler with shoes learning to walk. What do you notice? Little Frankenstein. Stiff, awkward, and clumsy movement.  The thousands of foot nerve endings are no longer sending her brain the feedback needed for coordination. Her feet are in boxes, making it unnecessarily more complicated to learn how to maintain balance.

After four years of barefoot running, it dawned on me that I might be walking incorrectly! So one day I tried walking with a midfoot/forefoot strike. I was hooked. I call it “active walking” in comparison to “passive walking” or heel striking. With active walking, all foot and lower leg muscles, ligaments, and tendons are activated. A 40-year habit is hard to break. I still catch myself heel striking, especially when I’m in a hurry or wearing shoes with a heel.

Barefoot running is philosophy in motion

In addition to the physical and mental benefits of running bare, barefoot running has evolved into a life philosophy. Here are many lessons I am still learning!

  1. You always have a choice. No matter how difficult the terrain looks ahead while running or in life, there is always a next step you can make, even if it isn’t the direction you expected to go in.
  2. Trust your instincts in a difficult situation. Barefoot running is instinctive running. Humans have been running much longer without shoes than with shoes. When in doubt, trust your gut.
  3. Listen to your body. Valuable health information is not always transmitted through words.
  4. You can handle more than you think. I run barefoot on gravel, snow and in temperatures just below freezing. Overcome your fears through practice.
  5. Be mindful. Running barefoot requires your full attention most of the time. Be present. Act with intention. Be mindful of your form and your conduct.
  6. Silence is golden. When running bare I am silent and can listen to the environment. I have startled shod runners and animals alike. Learn to listen with all of your senses.
  7. Take responsibility for your actions. If I step on a stone I cannot blame it. We choose what and how we respond to life. No one or no thing makes us do anything. It is always your choice.
  8. Transform hurtful energy. When I step on an object I allow the unpleasant energy to run through my body and transfer it to briefly run faster. Convert as much energy into self-improvement.
  9. You need less than you think. Rid yourself of clutter. Become a minimalist with how you conceptualize and interact with the world. Less helps you appreciate more.
  10. Be light in temperament. You are physically lighter barefoot. Holding grudges leaves no space to hold something that gives you power and energy. Forgive. Let go and move on.
  11. Be non-judgmental. I received looks and was made fun of when I started. Now people are curious and ask questions. Be open to new possibilities. Ask questions if you don’t understand.
  12. Use both body and mind simultaneously. Barefoot running incorporates both. We tend to use one at a time. A more holistic experience results when engaging both simultaneously. 
  13. Have fun. There is a playful quality to barefoot running. Try something new. Laugh with others and at yourself! Life is too short to take yourself too seriously!
  14. Be adaptable. Running bare requires you to adapt your approach and movement according to changing conditions. Train your mind and body to be flexible. 
  15. Live in the moment. Running bare demands that you be present in the here and now. Scan ahead but know your next step.
  16. Stay alert. Barefoot running doesn’t allow you to be inattentive for too long. Stay on your toes and don’t get caught flat-footed!
  17. Connect with nature and discharge negative energy. When barefoot running I reap the health benefits of grounding (see link above). Interact and connect with nature.
  18. Be true to yourself. No matter what you do, say, or if you wear shoes or not, there will always be critics. Do what is in your best interest as long as it doesn’t prevent others from doing so as well.

Go ahead. Kick off your shoes. Let your feet breath and reconnect with the Earth! Your mind, body, and soles will thank you!

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