Running shoes are wonderful things. They protect your feet from nails and broken glass, allow you to run on concrete, and are particularly useful in ice and snow. While protecting your feet, however, running shoes also treat them like planks that only bend a bit at the ball of the foot.
Each of your feet has 26 bones and many ligaments to provide structure, as well as over 20 muscles and their associated tendons which work together to dissipate shock and help you walk and run. The muscles in your feet form four layers and are fairly similar to the muscles in your hand. Those muscles support your arches and both spread the load when you land and help propel your forward. Yet in our day-to-day life we do not let our feet out of their little protective houses. The result is weak feet and ankles and, arguably, reduced running performance and a greater risk of injuries.
Reduced running performance occurs with weak feet because your feet are the last bit of propulsion at the end of the chain from your hip, thigh, and lower leg. The feet provide the extension at the end of push-off, not unlike the follow-through that gives a pitcher those last few miles per hour on his fastball. You may be more likely to be injured if you have weak feet because weak feet are less able to withstand the repetitive stresses of running (in shoes) on hard surfaces than feet and ankles with more developed muscles.
You can strengthen your feet and ankles by using them as they were designed to be used. Take off your shoes and let your feet move on uneven surfaces. When you walk or run barefoot, you strengthen all of the little muscles in your feet which have been sleeping peacefully in your shoes for years. You also stretch and strengthen your calf muscles and improve your running form because it is very difficult to run barefoot with bad technique and almost impossible to overstride.
Is barefoot running safe?
If integrated to your training program correctly, barefoot running can be an enjoyable and beneficial addition. If launched into too quickly, however, running barefoot can quickly lead to injury. Picture your soft little feet muscles and tendons when you suddenly say to them, “Okay, we’re going to start this training program by landing with four times bodyweight several thousand times.” That is a pretty sure prescription for injury, and not the type of increase your would subject any of your other muscles to. In addition, your running shoes have at least a half inch heel lift and your calf muscles and Achilles tendon have shortened accordingly. So, you must be careful when starting a barefoot running program.
I learned this lesson at a good friend’s expense. A few years ago, I was providing training advice to former Olympic marathoner Julie Isphording and suggested that she did some barefoot running. This was far too general a comment on my part as Julie then launched into several miles of barefoot running and became severely injured. I felt terrible (still do). Looking back, it is obvious (as it so often is) that I should have advised Julie to do a little barefoot walking for a few weeks before even attempting to run barefoot.
Who shouldn’t run barefoot?
Of course, there are some people who should not run barefoot at all and there are some places where it is not safe to run without shoes. San Diego biomechanist Doug Stewart, Ph.D., explains “Even in the best of circumstances, some runners have problems related to their footplant. Thus some runners will not do well running barefooted on any surfaces. Typically those would be people with mechanical problems who need orthotics and shoes to be better aligned, or for protection such as diabetics who have lost foot sensation.”
None of us should run barefoot anyplace where some idiot may have broken a bottle or ripped a beer can in half, or where there are sharp stones. Barefoot running is really only natural when running on natural, or at least forgiving surfaces. Some of the best surfaces for barefoot running are golf courses (at dawn or dusk when golfers aren’t around), grass fields at schools, universities, and parks, long stretches of sandy beach (so long as they are not too soft), and rubberized tracks. Obviously, you shouldn’t run barefoot if the surface you will be running on is likely to sizzle the bottoms of your feet or turn them to icicles.
How should you start?
Gradually. Before you start running barefoot, you should walk barefoot for a few weeks to strengthen the muscles in your feet and ankles and toughen up the skin on the bottom of your feet. Start out by walking barefoot for 5 minutes to 10 minutes a couple of times each day. You can also do exercises while walking barefoot such as high knees and walking on the balls of your feet to prepare your feet for running barefoot. Dr. Stewart says, “Feel your arches the next morning. If they are not sore, then you can do a little more the next day, but progress slowly. When you can walk barefoot for an hour relatively comfortably, then you should be ready to start a little barefoot running.”
Once you start barefoot running, the forces on your feet and calf muscles increase greatly. Start out with 5 minutes at the very most, and build gradually, running barefoot every two to three days. After a month or two, you may get to where you can run barefoot for 20 minutes. Then your feet will be strong which should reduce your injury risk when running. You may also find that you have more spring in your step and a slightly longer stride. Try barefoot running-your feet will be glad you did.
This article is a contribution from Peter Dickson Pfitzinger, an American former distance runner, who later became an author and exercise physiologist. He is best known for his accomplishments in the marathon, an event in which he represented the United States in two Summer Olympic Games: the Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics.