Shoe technology has only become ever more complicated as the years go by. Space age materials, dual-arch support, complicated cushioning—the modern running shoe has as many bells and whistles as a luxury automobile.
But since the second half of the 20th century, prominent runners have started going barefoot instead of embracing the high-tech solution. Should you emulate them with your own running habits?
A Brief History
Humans walked and ran barefoot for tens of thousands of years before the rise of civilization.
As cities developed and technology advanced, however, going barefoot quickly became a thing of the past. Perhaps on a romantic date one might go barefoot on the beach, but that was about it. Serious runners wore shoes.
That all changed in 1960 when Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila won the first of his Olympic gold medals by running a marathon barefoot. Other runners, such as Bruce Tulloh, Charlie Robbins, and Zola Budd popularized the form in England, the USA, and South Africa. Michael Warburton reignited the movement in 2001 with his classic paper, “Online Running.”
Why would someone run barefoot?
The Argument In Favor
Proponents of barefoot running point out that the human body was walking and running without shoes for thousands of years, and that it is “designed” to function that way. Running with shoes is unnatural, they claim, and can lead to increased chance of injury.
The biggest difference between runners with shoes and runners without is where they tend to land on their feet. Runners with shoes tend to land on the heel first, which leads to a large spike in initial force. This force is absorbed by the feet, ankles, knees, and hips, leading to joint pain and eventual injury.
Barefoot runners, on the other hand, land in the middle or front part of the foot, eliminating the spike in force that comes when landing on the heel. Additional muscles are strengthened to absorb the forces that would otherwise be absorbed by the shoe. Fans of barefoot running say that strengthening these muscles is a better, more reliable protection against injury than high-tech shoes.
Eliminating the weight of the shoe is also a great way to increase the body’s energy efficiency. Unlike weight carried on the body, weight on the feet must be accelerated and decelerated over and over again with each step. This takes energy that could be used for forward movement. To the casual runner, this won’t make much difference—but to the professional, it can be a big advantage. Just ask Abebe Bikila!
A Few Words Of Caution
Before you leap up to throw away your running shoes, a few words of caution:
If you’ve been wearing shoes for most of your life, the muscles that are used in barefoot running are weak and underdeveloped. It takes time and effort to retrain those muscles. The end result may be worth it, but in the meantime you need to go easy and listen to your body.
If you are a serious runner, don’t expect to run your usual distance without shoes. Start with 10% of your distance shoeless, and then lace up again for the rest. You can gradually shift the ratio as your feet get stronger.
Also, be careful where you run (particularly in the beginning, when your feet are soft). It’s best to start somewhere where you know there won’t be anything sharp in your way. Rubber athletic tracks are a good place to train barefoot in the beginning. Eventually you can move up to concrete and asphalt.
A few types of terrain should be avoided as you build your barefoot technique. Sand is too soft—you may develop bad technique running in sand, as there’s no way to know what part of your foot is striking first. Grassy fields may seem good, but unless they are cut very short they are usually too uneven and clumpy to form good technique.
Finally, keep in mind that while these are all suggestions, they’re not intended to replace the advice of a personal trainer.
If you’re willing to take the time to retrain your body, barefoot running is an interesting alternative to the usual approach. Over time, it can strengthen your feet and reduce risk of injury—but be careful with how you train and listen to your body!