Barefoot Running – Is it Good for You? [2022 Guide]

Should You Run Barefoot?

Barefoot running as a modern concept has been around for over 20 years.

But barefoot running in reality goes back hundreds and even thousands of years to when we had either no shoes or very minimalist shoes available to us.

So were our ancestors right to be running barefoot?

Does it reduce injuries as many people claim?

Does it strengthen your foot and leg muscles?

I’ve looked at the research available and using that collected knowledge I will look at the following in this blog article:

(you can jump to any section by clicking on it).

What is Barefoot Running?

This sounds like a really silly question right? Barefoot running would be running with nothing on your feet.

Well included in the barefoot running movement is minimalist running. Minimalist running is running in shoes that are “paired back” compared to the usual trainers.

They often have no heel pitch (no extra height in the heel compared to the front of the foot) or even sometimes a negative heel (heel is lower than the front of the foot). They also usually have a very flexible upper and don’t have a firm heel cup – thus removing support for the feet.

 Some minimalist options over the years have included the Vibram 5 finger socks, the Nike Free which has a range varying in support, the Skechers Go Walk – mainly the earlier models which had no upper support.

Vibram by the way settled a class action law suit against them, and this is what Professor John Goldman (Harvard Law School) had to say to runnersworld.com 

“The gist of her claim is that Vibram illegally obtained an economic windfall from her because it was only by making false health claims that Vibram induced consumers to buy FiveFingers shoes, and to pay more for them than they would have otherwise.”

There have been no successful cases against any other minimalist shoe companies that I’m aware of and in the end Vibram did not accept the premise of the law suit but paid out of court.

Photos of 3 minimalist shoes, the Skechers GoWalk, The Vibram 5 Fingers, and the Nike Free

On top of that there is the surfaces to consider.

Should you barefoot run on:

  • sand,
  • grass,
  • trails,
  • asphalt/concrete?

Barefoot Running Can Be a Disaster!

Over nearly 20 years of seeing patients who run I have come across a few cases where I think they have been given very bad advice. Advice that has caused them to be in tremendous pain after doing just a few runs, not necessarily barefoot but also in minimalist shoes.

I’m going to share a case study of a lady I’ve treated as a patient in my podiatry clinic (Dynamic Podiatry), as one of the reasons that changing to barefoot running could be a massive mistake, and cause injury and a resulting lack of exercise and its benefits.

So my patient Trina (not her real name), a 48 year old woman, had been coming to see me for a few years for treatment of Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis that she had suffered from for years on and off. 

I treated her with a customised off the shelf orthotic at the time and things were going quite well. With the orthoses and a stable pair of trainers (Brooks Ariel) she was able to do the running that she loved which made her a much happier person.

One day, after not seeing her for a while Trina presented to the clinic with a bit of a story.

She’d seen a therapist who had told her to: “run in minimalist shoes without orthotics and become more of a toe-runner.”

The day she presented she told me she had followed his advice, bought some minimalist shoes and left the orthotics out, which resulted in her suffering severe pain throughout the posterior compartments of her legs (calves an hamstrings). 

So much pain that she could hardly walk.

So Much Pain She Could Hardly Walk.

Off her own bat she decided to go back to her trainers and orthotics and was feeling a lot better.

So, what does this say for barefoot running.

It is one case study, so I won’t pretend to be able to say that it applies to everybody who tries barefoot running.

What I will say very clearly after treating patients as a podiatrist for 19 years and teaching for 17 years at a University, is that you need to be the right person to try barefoot running.

Barefoot running is NOT something that you should just go and try because someone told you to do it, without telling you exactly HOW to do it.

My patient had already had sagittal plane issues causing her previous pathology. 

So going into a pair of shoes without any pitch (heel height to forefoot height) without slowly progressing down from what she currently wore, and without being told to stretch her hamstring and calf muscles religiously whilst transitioning, AND not being told how she could suddenly become a “toe runner” is a recipe for disaster. So it was.

If You Want To Try Barefoot or Minimalist Running - Do Some Preparation.

If you want to start barefoot running, and you are not a fit supple person in your 20s, then you’re going to need to prepare and work up to it systematically.

Studies have shown that moving towards a more forefoot striking running style does take stress away from the heel bone and some of its attachments, but it tends to move that stress (pressure or tension) somewhere else rather than actually get rid of it. (Benno Nigg 

Do Exercises for Intrinsic Muscle Work?

There has been a lot of study in the past 20 years into the intrinsic muscles of the feet and what they do for us.

The reason I have included this research is because bare-foot running claims to increase the strength of the intrinsics.

Previously thought to be quite weak muscles, tests with electromyography have shown them to be much stronger. 

We now also know that they play a vital role in our balance, and in making the foot into a rigid lever to propel us forwards.

To read more and to learn how to strengthen your intrinsic foot muscles click here.

The Journal “Physical Therapy in Sport” in 2020 ran a study measuring both the volume and strength of the intrinsic muscles of the foot and found:

“The foot exercise protocol effectively increased intrinsic foot muscle volume and propulsive forces in recreational runners. This shows that intrinsic muscle strengthening affects running mechanics and suggests that it may improve running performance.”

The foot exercise protocol effectively increased intrinsic foot muscle volume and propulsive forces in recreational runners.

 

This shows that intrinsic muscle strengthening affects running mechanics and suggests that it may improve running performance.”

Now these participants were not running barefoot. One group had orthotics and another didn’t.

A diagram of the intrinsic muscles of the feet with labels of each muscla

The intrinsic muscles include:

  • Abductor Hallucis
  • Quadratus Plantae
  • Flexor Hallucis Brevis
  • Flexor Digitorum Brevis
  • Adductor Hallucis
  • Abductor Digiti Minimi
  • Flexor Digiti Minimi
  • The Interossei Muscles
  • The Lumbricals

Is There a Point to Barefoot Running?

The point of barefoot running is usually to prevent heel injuries like achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis by causing runners to transition from heel strike running to a more mid or forefoot running pattern.

Another perceived benefit is to strengthen the intrinsic muscles of the foot. 

A study by Nicholas Tam, PhD, Ross Tucker, PhD, and Janie L. Astephen Wilson, PhD in The American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at what changes could be noticed after a progressive barefoot running program found:

“No biomechanical changes were found in the group after the intervention.”  They did however find individual changes within some participants in ankle range of motion as well as “increased biceps femoris and gluteus medius preactivation, and decreased rectus femoris muscle activity between testing periods.” This was in 25% of the participants.

Yet another study by Jason Bonacci, Philo U Saunders, Amy Hicks, Timo Rantalainen, Bill (Guglielmo) T Vicenzino, Wayne Spratford in the Br Journal of Sports Medicine showed that there were less stressful forces on the knees and ankles.

Both of these studies were conducted on highly trained runners who were deemed to be fit and healthy, a much better starting point than the vast majority of us.

So there are two points here that stick out to me:

  • if there are only changes to 25% of the group, that raises my initial question even more, Is barefoot running for everyone?
  • Even in regular healthy runners, a progressive increase in barefoot running is a safer way to go.

Does Barefoot Running Strengthen Your Foot Muscles?

Many barefoot running advocates would have you believe that running barefoot causes your muscles to work harder, thereby strengthening those muscles which are crucial for balance and preventing injuries.

 

In 2016 Luke A. Kelly, Glen A. Lichtwark, Dominic J. Farris and Andrew Cresswell used a new technique to measure exactly what happens to the intrinsic (internal) muscles of the feet when running in a shoe or barefoot.

But some new research throws some doubt on that idea.

By using fine-wire electrodes were inserted using delivery needles  into the muscle tissue of under ultrasound guidance into two of the strongest intrinsic muscles – the Abductor Hallucis and the Flexor Digitorum Brevis.

They found that muscle activation of the AH and FDB muscles was actually higher when wearing shoes, and lower when barefoot.

This was found for both stance and at peak activation time.

Their theory on these findings is that the foot senses a less stiff surface inside a training shoe and therefore stiffens the muscles to form a rigid lever to propel the body forwards.

The reverse happens in barefoot where a rigid surface is detected and the foot muscles activate less to increase shock absorbing.

So, Back to Our Original Question:
Should YOU Run Barefoot?

So we’ve heard from some of the top researchers in the world in this field and they have come up with some conflicting results.

One thing you can bank on is that much more research will be done on this topic.

In the meantime, I think that whether you would like to run barefoot, in minimalist shoes, or in traditional trainers is a matter for you.

But! I would very strongly advise that if you are choosing one of the minimal options, that you do it in slow increments and under the supervision of your podiatrist.

If you have been running for several years or even decades in traditional trainers, then it is going to be much more difficult for you to transition into a more minimalist approach.

In fact if you have been happy running in trainers for a long time, I can’t see any real benefit to changing.

No matter who you are, increasing your barefoot running time in small increments is essential. The only variable will be how fast or how slowly you’ll need to increase which will be based on many factors including your running history, your age, your injury history and your running biomechanics.

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References

1. “Shoes alter the spring-like function of the human foot during running.”
Luke A. Kelly, Glen A. Lichtwark, Dominic J. Farris and Andrew Cresswell
Centre for Sensorimotor Performance, School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences, The University of Queensland, 26B Blair Drive, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia. 
rsif.royalsocietypublishing.org
26 May 2016. 

2. “Individual Responses to a Barefoot Running Program Insight Into Risk of Injury.”  Nicholas Tam, PhD, Ross Tucker, PhD, and Janie L. Astephen Wilson, PhD Investigation performed at the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, Department of Human Biology, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa. Epub 2016 Jan 7.

3. “Running in a minimalist and lightweight shoe is not the same as running barefoot: a biomechanical study.”
Jason Bonacci, Philo U Saunders, Amy Hicks, Timo Rantalainen, Bill (Guglielmo) T Vicenzino,5 Wayne Spratford
Br J Sports Med. Volume 47, Issue 6.

4. “Barefoot Running: Biomechanics and Implications for Running Injuries”
Allison R. Altman, PhD1 and Irene S. Davis, PT, PhD2

2012  The American College of Sports MedicineSep-Oct 2012;11(5):244-50.

The Dynamic Podiatry Team. 3 ladies and 2 men.
The Dynamic Podiatry logo orange and navy with a foot in the "D"