Like every fitness activity, running has its niches. Some people want to fight for first-place finishes, others cover wildly long distances in ultrarunning and cross country.
For diehard minimalists, there's barefoot running.
While you can hit the streets and log your miles footwear free like our ancestors, in common parlance, the term "barefoot running" refers to a slightly less extreme approach: using a pair of sneakers designed to mimic the sensation of barefoot running by forgoing plush cushioning, but still protecting your feet in the process.
But before you start imagining yourself as this modern caveman, tackling training with little separating your footprint from the pavement below, it helps to understand the discipline you're signing up for.
What Is Barefoot Running?
While you could just define the discipline as running without the use of footwear, similar to how our ancestors ran, today's technology advancements have allowed us to maintain the essence of running barefoot without fully dropping the shoes. After all, our ancestors weren't logging their miles over paved roadways, concrete sidewalks and hot asphalt.
For today's barefoot runners, the best definition is running while wearing shoes featuring minimal-to-no heel-to-toe drop. This is a best of both worlds approach that allows athletes to tap into that natural footpath while still keeping a sense of protection underfoot for their modern surfaces and environments.
What are the Potential Benefits to Barefoot Running?
Barefoot running can help strengthen your feet and ankles.
Running shoes can add a lot to your stride, including a well-cushioned base to land on within each step. However, this comfort can turn to a crutch rather quickly, which can lead to weaker ankle and foot strength over time.
Switching up your footwear for barefoot running can put added stressors on your feet, ankles and calves as they become more activated in the discipline. With each footstrike, you're relying more on your body's frame to support your movement, rather than the technology built into a traditional running shoe's midsole. While this can be a bit painful or annoying on your first few runs, over time, your body will strengthen and adapt to the conditions, leading to a more stable, strong and healthy running stride.
Barefoot running can force you to change your footstrike.
As stated above, a running shoe's midsole acts as padding underfoot to keep your takeoffs and landings comfortable and protected. Because of this, we as athletes have adapted our running strides to take advantage of the technology, with many individuals landing on their heels rather than our natural forefoot or midfoot.
In barefoot running, though, it takes one step to realize how painful this landing can be without the convenient foam. So what does the body do in these circumstances? It adapts, or rather, returns to its natural gait, forcing you to land forefoot or midfoot. This rearranging can help keep your running more natural, and also provide a balanced frame, since your bodyweight is more centered in order to achieve the desirable strike.
Barefoot running can help burn more calories.
In barefoot running, there's no supporting actors. You feel the ground beneath you, albeit through a paper-thin outsole, and there's no in-shoe technology to help propel you forward or keep you running longer. As a result, you need to work your body more in training to achieve the desired distances, and more work means more calorie-burning potential. That is, if you don't buckle under the pressure.
So, Why Isn't Everyone Running Barefoot?
While advocates will argue all the benefits above, there is not yet much concrete evidence showing that barefoot running is the cure-all for foot problems. Think about a typical visit to your podiatrist — if you have a problem or ache in your foot, do they prescribe orthotics, or do they prescribe walking barefoot?
Additionally, barefoot running is not something people pick up overnight. Our feet have become accustomed to footwear, and as a result, have developed less callousness and grit to combat exposure to the ground. There's also the notion of changing gaits and footstrikes, which can also breed some aches and pains if you begin your barefoot journey without some precautions.
Lastly, barefoot running doesn't accommodate for athletes that suffer from compromised footpaths, i.e., pronation or supination. If your natural step rolls inward or outward, respectively, barefoot running does little to correct that to keep your feet aligned in a natural, neutral plane.
How Do You Start Barefoot Running?
If you are curious about barefoot running and want to give it a shot, here are a few tips that I've learned from my own journey into the discipline to help you ease into this challenging yet fun activity.
Slow and steady.
Do not expect to run a 5k or marathon on your first day with barefoot running. This is a completely new sensation for your feet, and as such, there will be growing pains.
To get accustomed to the forefoot or midfoot strike, as well as the new stressors you're placing on your ankles and calves, I recommend starting out by simply walking around the house barefoot. Once you get used to the foot pattern, you can take your strides into training, but I'd still consider keeping that walking pace for the first workouts or two. Barefoot running is not a race (yet), and rushing this discipline can lead to potential injuries and pain, thus negating some of the positives that come with the subcategory.
Get the proper gear.
As tantalizing as it may be to run without footwear, I do not recommend it. There are plenty of barefoot-specific footwear options available to keep your digits protected from harsh asphalt, gravel and concrete. If you really have that itch to kick off the kicks for some miles, try running on a grassy field or in the sand, if your surroundings allow for it.
Alternate and wean yourself off traditional running shoes.
Adapting to a barefoot stride takes time, and you can't expect to wake up each day and stress your feet into submission. Try alternating your training days between barefoot shoes and traditional footwear. This can keep your feet and ankles more comfortable as they grow and strengthen to abide by the barefoot standard.
Alternating between shoes shouldn't be a hard jump. If you're going from a 10mm drop to a zero mm drop, this may be too much to overcome at once. I've found that having a pair of barefoot running shoes and running shoes with anywhere from 4–6mm of heel-to-toe drop work best, but cater to your needs.
As a final note, I'll say that barefoot running isn't for everyone. Neither is powerlifting, or cycling, or running in general, for that matter. If you're interested in the discipline, give it a go, just be smart about it and make the most of every mile ahead.