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BAREFOOT RUNNING AND MINIMALIST SHOES: BETTER OPTIONS FOR FOOT HEALTH?

Mya Care Blogger 12 Dec 2023
BAREFOOT RUNNING AND MINIMALIST SHOES: BETTER OPTIONS FOR FOOT HEALTH?

Running is one of the most popular and accessible forms of exercise, yet over time, it can also be a source of injury and frustration for many people. Some runners have turned to minimalist barefoot running as a way to improve the way their feet function, reduce their injury risk, enhance their performance, and connect with nature. Yet is running barefoot good for you, and does it have advantages over ordinary running?

In this blog, we will answer these questions by exploring the benefits and risks of barefoot running over ordinary running and will provide you with some tips on how to get started safely. Read more to find out how to run barefoot with proper technique, what barefoot running shoes are, and how to run barefoot on different surfaces.

What is Barefoot Running?

Barefoot running, also known as natural running, is the act of running without any footwear or with very thin-soled shoes that mimic the feeling of being barefoot. It is a little-known fact that ordinary running shoes were only invented in the 1970s and that until then, barefoot running was the norm for most of human history[1].

The theory behind barefoot running is that wearing shoes with cushioning, arch support, and heel elevation changes the body's and foot's natural biomechanics, making running ineffective and possibly dangerous. According to barefoot runners, running barefoot or with minimal footwear enhances proprioception (the sense of position and movement), strengthens the muscles and tendons in the lower leg and foot, and permits the foot to move through its full range of motion.

Barefoot running changes the way the foot strikes the ground. Most shod runners (runners that use normal running shoes and technique) tend to land on their heels first. This creates a large impact force that travels up the leg and can increase the risk for injuries such as knee pain, plantar fasciitis, and shin splints. Barefoot runners, on the other hand, tend to land on their forefoot or midfoot, which creates a smaller impact force, changes the weight distribution and position of the body, and permits the foot to function as a built-in shock absorber. This also means that barefoot running uses less energy to achieve by comparison to shod running[2] while simultaneously strengthening the feet.

Barefoot vs Running Shoes: What are Barefoot Shoes?

Barefoot shoes, or minimalist shoes, are designed to simulate the feeling and function of running barefoot while providing some protection from the elements and hazards on the ground.

Characteristics of barefoot running shoes include the following:

  • Lightweight: You should not feel like you have anything on your feet while wearing them.
  • Highly flexible: You should be able to twist the sole in on itself. 
  • Completely flat: The shoe does not have a toe spring or a heel-to-toe drop, meaning between the shoe's heel and toe, there is no height difference, and the shoe does not rock while one walks. 
  • Wide toe box or toe pockets: This allows the toes to spread and splay naturally.

People can use minimalist running shoes to transition to barefoot running or to run barefoot on uneven or rough terrain.

Barefoot shoes can be divided into two categories: minimalist shoes and minimalist trail shoes:

  • Minimalist shoes are suitable for running on smooth and hard surfaces, such as roads, tracks, and treadmills. They have a thin rubber sole that provides some grip and cushioning but not much else.
  • Minimalist trail shoes are suitable for running on rough and uneven surfaces, such as trails, grass, and sand. They have a slightly thicker sole that provides more traction and protection from rocks, roots, and other obstacles.

Some examples of barefoot shoes are:

  • Vibram FiveFingers: These are shoes that have individual toe pockets and a very thin sole. They are meant to mimic the feeling of running barefoot as closely as possible.
  • Merrell Trail Glove: These are shoes that have a wide-toe box, a zero-drop sole, and a mesh upper. They are meant to provide a balance between barefoot feel and trail protection.
  • Nike Free: These are shoes that have flexible soles, a low heel-to-toe drop, and a breathable upper. They are meant to provide a natural and comfortable running experience.

Benefits of Barefoot Running and Using Barefoot Shoes

Is barefoot running good for you? It should be understood that studies that look at barefoot running vs. running tend to show mixed results and that it is an active area of research with much remaining to be clarified. In general, barefoot running is better for most people from the perspective that it works with the feet in a natural way that supports them and enhances their strength, endurance, and longevity.

Barefoot running benefits include:

  • Improved running form and efficiency: Barefoot running and barefoot shoes may encourage a more natural and optimal running form, which involves landing on the forefoot or midfoot, keeping the feet under the body, and using a shorter and quicker stride. This may improve the running efficiency, reduce the energy, and improve oxygen consumption[3].
  • Reduced injury risk: Barefoot running and barefoot shoes may reduce the risk of common running injuries, such as knee pain, heel pain, and plantar fasciitis, by reducing contact with the feet and the ground and lowering the impact force and stress on the joints and tissues[4]. They may also prevent or correct overpronation (excessive inward rolling of the foot) and oversupination (excessive outward rolling of the foot) due to strengthening the feet and ankles, further contributing to preventing foot pain and injury.
  • Strengthened feet and lower legs: Barefoot running and barefoot shoes may strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the feet and lower legs by allowing them to work more actively and dynamically. This may improve the stability and mobility of the feet and ankles and prevent or treat conditions such as flat feet, bunions, and shin splints. Studies also confirm that the stability of the pelvis and upper body increases with barefoot running and that this is accommodated by strengthening the feet and lower legs.[5]
  • Improved balance and proprioception: Barefoot running and barefoot shoes may improve the balance and proprioception of the body by enhancing the sensory feedback from the feet and the ground. Sensory feedback from the feet is important for our sense of balance, which is dampened through the use of cushioned shoes[6]. Barefoot running shoes may improve the coordination and agility of the runner and prevent falls and injuries.
  • Getting more connected with nature: Barefoot running and barefoot shoes may provide a more enjoyable and satisfying running experience by allowing the runner to feel more connected to nature and the environment. Running barefoot or with minimal shoes may also stimulate the reflexology points on the feet, which might benefit the runner's health and general well-being.

Barefoot Running Risks and Drawbacks

For most people, the advantages of barefoot running far exceed the drawbacks. However, it may not be appropriate for everyone or in every environment. Here are some risks associated with barefoot running:

  • Lack of protection and comfort. Running barefoot exposes your feet to sharp objects, rough surfaces, and extreme temperatures, which can more easily lead to cuts, blisters, bruises, and infections. Yet this may not be such a problem for forefoot runners who land on their toes. Running barefoot can also be uncomfortable or painful for some people, especially if they have pre-existing foot conditions or injuries.
  • Increased strain and soreness. Barefoot running is more of a foot workout, especially if you are not well-adjusted. In the beginning, it can put more stress on your calves, Achilles tendons (ankles), and plantar fascia (soles of the feet), as they have to stretch and contract more than usual. If the feet are not stretched properly before the run, this can lead to muscle soreness, tightness, and inflammation and increase your risk of injuries like Achilles tendinitis, calf strain, and plantar fasciitis.
  • Difficulty in transitioning and adapting. Running barefoot requires a different technique and skill than running with shoes, and it can take time and patience to adjust to it. If you transition too quickly or too aggressively, you may experience pain, discomfort, or injury. You may also face social or environmental barriers, such as negative reactions from others, lack of suitable terrain, or safety regulations.
  • Limited availability and suitability: Barefoot running and barefoot shoes may not be available or suitable for all runners, depending on their location, climate, terrain, and personal preference. Some runners may not have access to safe and clean places to run barefoot or with minimal shoes. Others may also prefer the feel and function of conventional running shoes over barefoot running shoes.

Who Should and Should Not Try Barefoot Running?

Barefoot running may be suitable for some runners but not for others, depending on their goals, fitness level, and health status.

You may want to try barefoot running or barefoot shoes if you are:

  • An experienced and healthy runner who wants to improve your running form, efficiency, and performance.
  • A recreational runner who wants to have more fun and variety in your running routine.
  • A runner who suffers from chronic running injuries, such as knee pain, heel pain, or plantar fasciitis, and wants to find a natural and alternative way to prevent or treat them.
  • A runner who loves nature and wants to feel more connected to the environment.

You may want to avoid barefoot running or barefoot shoes if you are:

  • A runner who has a medical condition or injury that affects your feet, ankles, or lower legs, such as diabetes, arthritis, or fractures.
  • A runner who needs more support or cushioning for your feet, such as if you have flat feet, high arches, under or overpronation, shin splints, or bunions.

Even with a medical condition, injury, or foot shape that affects the way you walk, you may still benefit from trying barefoot shoes, performing foot-strengthening exercises and eventually progressing toward barefoot running. Many people advocate that it helps them ease foot pain and enjoy their lives more.

How to Start Barefoot Running: Tips for Safely Adjusting to a Barefoot Running Technique

If you decide to give barefoot running or barefoot shoes a try, you should do it gradually and carefully to avoid injuries and complications. Keep in mind that we use our feet a lot less when wearing padded modern shoes and a lot more when we walk barefoot, which means that your feet may need to do some working out before transitioning to barefoot running.

Here are some tips to help you start barefoot running and transition to barefoot shoes safely and effectively:

  • Start slowly and progressively: Do not rush into barefoot running or barefoot shoes. You might want to spend a week or two practicing foot exercises for barefoot running first. These consist of basic foot stretch exercises and are particularly beneficial for those with flat feet or fallen arches. When you begin barefoot running, start with short and easy runs, no more than 15 to 20 minutes, once or twice a week. Increase the length, frequency, and intensity of your barefoot runs gradually by no more than 10% a week. Listen to your body and take rest days as needed.
  • Choose the right surface and shoes: Start with a soft and smooth surface, such as grass, sand, or a rubberized track, where you are less likely to hurt your feet or encounter hazards. Select barefoot running shoes based on the size, shape, and style of your feet. Ensure that the shoes you wear barefoot are flexible, comfy, and do not have a heel-to-toe drop. Steer clear of shoes that are very rigid, too tight, or too loose.
  • Warm-up and cool down: Before and after each barefoot run, do foot exercises for barefoot running to prepare and recover your muscles, joints, and tendons. Some examples of warm-up exercises are toe curls, heel raises, ankle circles, and calf stretches. Cool-down exercises can include gentle foot stretches, foot massages, ice packs, and elevating the feet.
  • Pay attention to your form and technique: When running barefoot or with barefoot shoes, focus on your form and technique rather than your speed or distance. Aim for a smooth and relaxed running style, with a forefoot or midfoot strike, a short and quick stride, and a high cadence. Keep your feet under your body, your knees slightly bent, and your posture upright. Avoid landing on your heels, overstriding, or bouncing too much. Experts explain that if you practice a little bit without shoes on in a safe environment, you will naturally develop your own barefoot running technique.[7]
  • Be patient and consistent: Do not expect to see immediate results or benefits from barefoot running or barefoot shoes. It may take several weeks or months to adapt to the new way of running and to notice any improvements in your performance, injury prevention, or enjoyment. Be patient and consistent with your barefoot running routine, and do not give up easily.

How to Run Barefoot on Different Surfaces

One of the joys of barefoot running is that you can explore different terrains and experience different sensations under your feet. However, not all surfaces are created equal, and some may be more suitable or challenging for barefoot running than others.

Here are some tips on how to run barefoot on different surfaces:

  • Grass. Grass is one of the best surfaces for barefoot running, as it is soft, smooth, and gentle on your feet. It also provides natural cushioning and shock absorption, which can reduce the impact and stress on your joints. However, grass can also hide sharp objects, insects, or animal droppings, so be careful and watch where you step. Also, avoid running on wet or slippery grass, as it can increase your risk of falling or twisting your ankle.
  • Sand. Sand is another great surface for barefoot running, as it is soft, warm, and pleasant to the touch. Barefoot running on the beach also offers variable resistance and instability, which can challenge your muscles and improve your balance and coordination. However, sand can also be abrasive, hot, or cold, depending on the weather and the time of day, so be mindful of the temperature and the texture of the sand. Also, avoid running on too soft or too hard sand, as it can either make you sink or jar your joints. Aim for a firm and level sand, preferably near the water’s edge.
  • Asphalt. Asphalt is one of the worst surfaces for barefoot running, as it is hard, rough, and unforgiving on your feet. It also exposes your feet to potential hazards, such as glass, rocks, metal, or other debris, which can cause cuts, punctures, or infections. Moreover, asphalt can be very hot or cold, depending on the season and the climate, which can burn or freeze your feet. If you want to run barefoot on asphalt, make sure to wear minimalist shoes or sandals and choose a clean and smooth path.
  • Concrete. Concrete is another bad surface for barefoot running, as it is harder, stiffer, and more damaging than asphalt. It also has no give or bounce, which means that all the impact and shock are transferred to your feet and legs, increasing your risk of injuries like stress fractures, shin splints, or knee pain. If you want to run barefoot on concrete, make sure to wear minimalist shoes or sandals and limit your distance and frequency.
  • Trails. Trails can be a fun and adventurous surface for barefoot running, as they offer a variety of textures, elevations, and challenges. They can also stimulate your senses and connect you with nature. However, trails can also be unpredictable, uneven, and hazardous, exposing your feet to rocks, roots, sticks, or other obstacles, which can cause bruises, sprains, or fractures. If you want to run barefoot on trails, make sure to wear minimalist shoes or sandals, and choose a well-maintained and familiar trail.

Conclusion

Barefoot running can be a rewarding and beneficial activity for runners who want to improve their foot health, running form, and performance. However, barefoot running also comes with a few risks and challenges, and it requires a proper technique and a gradual transition. If you want to try barefoot running, follow the tips above to ensure a smooth start.

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Sources:

  • [1] https://www.nature.com/articles/nature08723
  • [2]https://www.center4research.org/barefoot-minimalist-running-need-know/
  • [3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26808847/
  • [4] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23850795/
  • [5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7902604/
  • [6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36370618/
  • [7] https://www.bareshoes.co.uk/running/how-to/

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