Should you permanently ditch your shoes and join the ranks of the dirty-soled?

Barefoot running has become a bit of a media darling.  Everywhere you turn, news stories carry features discussing the growing trend.  Most report the movement or feature a local barefoot runner.  Very few actually give useful advice.  Even fewer examine the fundamental question:

Should you permanently ditch your shoes and join the ranks of the dirty-soled?

It depends on your goals.  People begin running barefoot for a variety of reasons.  Some common reasons include relief from injuries, desire to reduce running gear, searching for a new challenge, or just adding an element of fun to stale training routines.

Before beginning barefoot running, it is important to consider some of the advantages and disadvantages.  Current research is mostly inconclusive regarding the benefits of barefoot running.  Until further research sheds more light on the practice, we can rely on anecdotal evidence to explore the pros and cons.  After encountering thousands of barefoot runners, I found a few common trends.

Before we explore the advantages and disadvantages, some groups should exercise extreme caution.  Those with circulatory or nerve deficiencies that limit the sensory feedback from the soles of the foot are not well-suited for barefoot running.  The risk of injury increases when you cannot react to the sensations experienced by the soles of your feet.  For the rest of us, barefoot running should be perfectly safe assuming you exercise patience and listen to the feedback from your body.  Here are some of the advantages:

  • * Injury reduction: Many people that begin running barefoot report a dramatic reduction of many injuries that plague shod runners.  Shin splints, plantar fasciitis, ITBS, blackened toenails, and sprained ankles are just a few injuries that seem to decrease when running without shoes.
  • * Enjoyment: Barefoot running reintroduces a certain degree of novelty to the running experience.   The feeling of your feet connecting with the ground reawakens a primal drive we lose when we encapsulate our feet in shoes.
  • * Cost: Shoes can be prohibitively expensive, especially if you are a high mileage trainer.
  • * Convenience: Running is a unique sport because so little equipment is required.  Without the need for shoes, all that is really needed is some degree of clothing. Depending on the tolerance of your running partners, perhaps even clothing is optional.
  • * Strength, balance, and proprioception: Barefoot running helps strengthen the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones of the feet.  Losing the shoes also helps develop a better sense of both balance and body awareness.

Barefoot running is occasionally cast as a cure-all, but there are some disadvantages:

  • * Injuries: Barefoot running does increase the likelihood of some injuries.  If new barefoot runners are too overzealous and do not exercise patience, they may develop injuries to the metatarsals of the feet, Achilles tendons, or blisters.  Losing the protection of shoes also increases the likelihood of puncture wounds or abrasions.
  • * Transition time: For new barefoot runners, patience is critical.  A decrease in training volume and intensity is necessary.  Most new barefoot runners take several months to regain their previous speed and distances.
  • * Reduced training: The reduction in training volume can be difficult for runners accustomed to the regular endorphin fix from their daily run.  In this situation, I usually recommend some form of weight training, such as Crossfit or other high intensity interval training.

These are a few considerations a runner should ponder before deciding to begin barefoot running.  Sometimes people decide to make a “middle ground” approach and use minimalist shoes.  This can be an excellent method to capture some of the benefits of barefoot running while limiting the disadvantages.

A minimalist shoe is any shoe that allows runners to use a barefoot-like gait.  While different definitions exist, I consider any shoe to be “minimal” if it has a flat, flexible sole with minimal cushioning and no support with a wide toe box to allow the toes to “splay”.  Examples would be the the Merrell Barefoot shoes, the Vibram Five Fingers, or the Terra Plana VivoBarefoot line.

The advantage of quality minimalist shoes is simple; they do not change running form.  Under normal conditions, I prefer running barefoot.  I also recommend people learn to run barefoot before using minimalist shoes.  Sometimes terrain or temperature necessitate some degree of protection.  In that regard, shoes are used as tools; they provide just enough protection to accomplish the task.

In the next article, I will cover the basics of getting started.  You can get a head start by spending some time interacting with your environment without socks or shoes.  Notice the details like texture and temperature.  This will begin the process of strengthening your feet and acclimate you to the idea of listening to your soles.  Most of all, you will discover it is fun being barefoot!


About The Author:

Jason Robillard is the owner of Barefoot Running University, author of The Barefoot Running Book, and one of the founding members of the Barefoot Runners Society.