Start a discussion about going barefoot with any group of running enthusiasts, and you’re sure to leave with an impassioned earful. Some people believe that by running barefoot, your feet can move more naturally and avoid injury. Others insist that the risks of injury and exacerbating conditions like heel pain outweigh any positives. But what are the real risks and potential benefits that go hand in hand with running barefoot–especially when it comes to foot health?
Keep reading to get the skinny on the pros and cons of going barefoot, as well as some tips and alternatives for going barefoot the healthy way!
Benefits of Going Barefoot
One of the biggest boons of barefoot running is that it typically causes a beneficial change in gait. Most runners wearing shoes strike the ground heel first (rather than with the ball of the foot). This gait can generate a significant force–up to three times your bodyweight. By running barefoot, your gait typically changes to where the ball of the foot hits the ground first, generating less impact force, meaning less impact to your heels, knees, and joints. How much less is still up for debate–but there is some evidence that the diminished force, combined with the shortened stride that happens naturally as a result–can make a 4% difference in impact force.
Running barefoot also improves balance in many runners, meaning fewer stumbles or falls. Being able to feel the ground beneath you as you run helps your feet communicate with the rest of your body more effectively.
Risks of Going Barefoot
One of the biggest risks of running barefoot comes in the form of hazards you probably don’t even notice as you walk with shoes, such as tiny pieces of sharp plastic or glass, small pebbles, hot and cold surfaces, and thorns. Without shoes, these small and often unnoticed factors can spell out major injuries for a bare foot.
A second risk may seem contradictory at first: barefoot running can mean increased shock and impact to your feet and joints. Why? While barefoot running can improve your gait and reduce the amount of overall impact to your body, good running shoes also absorb that shock much more effectively than bare feet do. In other words, the impact might be less with bare feet, but you’ll absorb a greater percentage of that shock than if you were wearing shoes.
If you have high arches or flat arches (many people lean one way or the other), going barefoot can increase your chances of developing heel pain, or plantar fasciitis by putting additional strain on the heel and fascia. Running or walking barefoot for long periods of time can wear down the fatty pad that, while barefoot, is the only thing between the hard ground and your fascia, leading to inflammation.
Tips and Alternatives for Healthy Barefoot Running
If you do decide that barefoot running is for you, follow these tips to make sure your feet stay in good shape:
- Stick to running on soft, relatively even surfaces like grass. Avoid running on hard surfaces like concrete or pavement, that increase the amount of shock your feet absorb.
- Take it slow. Running barefoot means your feet and calves will need to work harder than when you’re wearing shoes. You’ll also need to build up the toughness on the bottom of your feet. Start with walking then move up to running short distances.
- Stretch and exercise your feet to build up strength and avoid injury. Try these simple exercises!
- Only run barefoot when the conditions are ideal. If your run will take you across uneven, hard surfaces or through urban areas that might conceal hazards like broken glass, lace up the shoes instead.
- Instead of going completely barefoot, try wearing simple, cost effective heel seat wraps that support your feet and allow you to free your toes while supporting your heels.
Whether you choose to keep your feet laced up, barefoot, or something in between, making sure you know the facts is the best thing you can do to keep your feet healthy and happy. Bravo for doing your homework!