What is barefoot running?

Author: Laura Briggs

Read Time:   |  July 20, 2022

Running without shoes might sound a bit mad, but there are loads of benefits of adding it into your running routine. We find out more about barefoot running from the experts...

The idea of running totally barefoot, in minimalist shoes or even socks (think Vibram Fivefingers shoes or Baresocks) is a bit of a Marmite subject for runners. But lots swear by barefoot running, for a number of reasons.

We wanted to find out more, so we got some expert advice to help us understand why we might want to incorporate barefoot running into our training. Read on for our guide to barefoot running…

What are the benefits of barefoot running?

Those who know say that barefoot running can reduce injury and improve form, over time. And at its most basic level, going barefoot has the ability to ground us and connect us to the earth in a way that can’t be experienced through footwear.

We asked Harley Street podiatrist and foot expert, Marion Yau, for her expert opinion on the benefits of barefoot running. Here’s what she said:

  • Naturally strengthens muscles such as the calf, Achilles tendon, and foot muscles
  • Improves running efficiency
  • Improves balance and stability
  • Can help with common running problems like plantar fasciitis, when done properly

Do we need to ditch our running shoes?

The benefits of barefoot running all sound great. So, why can’t we get those from wearing our running shoes?

Essentially, wearing shoes can decondition our feet. Rather than building the muscles we need for stability and strength in our running, we end up relying on the cushioning that we’re so used to in our everyday shoes and trainers. And when we don’t use muscle, we can sadly lose it.

Happily, lost muscle can be built back up again over time. When that happens, our feet become more effective at moving us forward without too much help from our shoes, or extra effort from other muscles in our body.

Does that mean we need to give up our favourite running shoes all together? Not at all! For a lot of our regular runs, trainers are a must. They protect our feet from sharp objects on the road or trails and provide necessary cushioning on recovery runs. They are also usually a requirement in races.

Ultimately, it’s all about how we use our shoes. By incorporating some barefoot running into our training, we can stop relying on them – and start enjoying the benefits they offer.

How to start barefoot running

If you’re ready to head out for a barefoot run, hold your horses: it’s important to transition correctly. Some runners have reported taking to it straight away, but others have found themselves with injuries, due to incorrect technique.

Here are our tips for getting started:

  • Make the transition slowly
    If you’ve only run in cushioned trainers, it’s important not to rush things. First of all, add a pair of minimalist shoes to your collection, get used to those, then try socks, and finally move to barefoot.
  • Start small
    When you first go barefoot, don’t jump straight into running a 5K. Try taking 5 minutes of barefoot walking or jogging at the beginning or end of your run, then extend this each week as your muscles adjust.
  • Be careful
    As beautiful as our countryside is, there can be hazardous items found on trails and in grasslands. Plan where you’re going to go barefoot and, if possible, check for any dangers before you run.
  • Softly does it
    The softer the surface, the easier it will be for your feet to make the transition. Sand is a great place to start.

Can barefoot running cause injuries?

As we mentioned, doing barefoot running incorrectly can cause injuries. “I sometimes see barefoot runners presenting with calf and Achilles heel problems initially,” says Marion. “Often these are when a runner hasn’t taken advice on transitioning, and they tend to resolve themselves once they get some expert input.” If you’re not sure about making the transition, ask for help from a running coach or foot expert like Marion.

The other thing to be aware of is injuries from being barefoot generally. “We see more injuries such as small breaks in the skin,” Marion says. “If these aren’t cared for properly, they can lead to skin infections.” Anna McNuff is a barefoot runner (she once ran barefoot across the whole of the UK!). She recommends cleaning you feet well after every run, and using and antiseptic such as TCP to clean any cuts or scrapes as soon as you get home.

Strengthening exercises for barefoot running

Just like we do strength training for running, we can prepare ourselves for barefoot running with strength exercises for our feet and ankles. This can help with that transition and give you more confidence in your ability before you run barefoot, or compliment your barefoot runs.

  • Toe strengthener
    Standing with your feet flat on the floor, raise your big toes off the ground and push your other toes down into the floor. Hold for five seconds, then swap over by pushing your big toes back into the floor, and lifting your opposite toes off the ground.
  • Arch activator
    Using a hard ball – a cricket ball works well – stand with one foot on the floor and the other on top of the ball. Roll the ball all around the arch of the foot, and back aground your heel to work the underneath of your foot. Swap feet and repeat.
  • Balance builder
    Lifting one knee to your chest, make circles with the raised foot in one direction, as big as you can. Repeat 10 times and then swap legs.
  • Calf strengthener
    With both feet barefoot on the ground, raise up onto your toes and, pushing with your big toes, walk forwards without letting your heels drop. Start with 10 steps on each foot and then build up as your feet get stronger.
  • Bounce drills
    With one bare foot on the ground, hop from side to side 10 times, and again forwards and backwards. Swap feet and repeat.

Laura Briggs

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