Whether you’re already a runner or you're just getting into it for the first time, you've probably already heard about barefoot running - or, as it's sometimes referred to, minimalist running.
It’s a running concept that was thrust into the spotlight by the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall back in 2009, arguably one, if not, the most famous books about running that exists today. It is, however, a phenomenon that existed way before the release of that book, with many elite runners around the world not only acting as ambassadors for the movement but proving it;
Barefoot running promotes an idea that totally goes against the grain of how we’ve been told to run for decades and what we should be wearing (or not wearing) on our feet when we’re eating up those miles.
There’s science to back up the benefits, but that same science has come under scrutiny as to what it really tells us about this running concept.
So, what is barefoot running, how does it differ from putting miles in a pair of running shoes and how can you make the transition? We answer all those questions and more below.
What is barefoot running?
Barefoot running in its purest sense is just that, running without shoes with your feet firmly against the ground.
But the term can often refer to running in more minimalist footwear sometimes referred to as barefoot running shoes. Unlike your conventional pair of Nike or Adidas running shoes, the minimalist kind ditch the cushioning, opting for thin soles that bring your feet in closer contact with the ground. By doing that it can give the benefits of a barefoot-style experience whilst still offering protection from the ground and anything that might stop you in your tracks.
The idea of running barefoot or in a pair of barefoot running shoes is to promote a way of landing on your midfoot of the sole or the forefoot as opposed to the heel, which is what you will find running in a standard running shoe.
It’s believed by barefoot runners that through evolution, man has always run on the mid-foot and that our feet are designed to do that without the support. In choosing to run this way, it should mean developing what is considered a more ‘natural’ gait.
The benefits of barefoot
If you believe in the science, there can be a number of advantages of getting closer to the ground.
According to running coach Benjamin Le Vescont: “Barefoot running allows more information about the forces to enter the body, giving us a greater opportunity to run with skillful technique. The goal of barefoot running is to run with flow.”
Going barefoot is said to reduce the impact on your skeletal system when compared to running on your heel. By moving from landing on your heel to your mid-foot, it’s believed that it can strengthen muscles, tendons, and ligaments that may be neglected in cushioned shoes like the calf and Achilles tendon and reduce injuries in those key running components.
It’s also believed that running barefoot can be of benefit for anyone that regularly suffers from shin splints or knee pain sustained from running or other similar activities.
Improving balance is also tied to running barefoot. By activating more muscles in the lower part of the body and not relying on a shoe to assist with support, it can offer a stronger sense of that balance based on the natural formation of your feet.
Moving from heel to mid-foot landing promotes a more ideal posture, which can ultimately help create a platform for a more effective and efficient running style.
Almost a decade on from Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall still runs in minimalist shoes and believes those benefits remain. “I still believe in the benefit for everybody,” he told us. “Every physical movement has a more or less efficient way of doing it. For every other sport, you talk about technique. So why would running be the only activity that has no rules on physics?
“The closer you get to a pure physical form, the better. The footwear is secondary if you perfect technique. If you do have an issue they’re all correctable by form.”
All of these factors and strengthening the feet can help to positively influence your running stride. It’s ultimately doing things like decreasing ground contact time and increasing stride length to generate more explosive running and greater speed.
The risks of barefoot
The obvious one is that your body is unlikely to have developed to run barefoot straight away. Unless you’ve grown up in places like Ethiopia or Kenya where barefoot running is rife, you’ve probably been used to having something on your feet to get around.
You’ve probably started running in high drop cushioned shoes that promote heel striking. To move from a high drop shoe to zero drop is going to take time to adapt. You’ll be engaging muscles and aspects of the foot that have probably been dormant and underdeveloped.
By moving straight to barefoot running you're forcing those underdeveloped muscles to do something that they're not used to. That’s often why transitioning from standard running shoes to something more minimal takes time for your feet and leg muscles to adapt.
Specifically, you’ll experience increased workload on the calf and the Achilles tendon. Over time they will get stronger, but jumping in foot-first could lead to injuries from overwork and an inability to deal with the various obstacles on the ground.
If you’re going completely barefoot, blisters will be likely, along with the obvious hazards like stones, rocks and even glass or nails. That's even before worrying about the effect of cold and wet conditions.
How to start running barefoot
As we said, you can’t simply go shoeless or move to a pair of minimalist running shoes and then start hammering the miles. Your body is simply not going to be ready for it.
It’s a process that has to be gradually worked into your routine even before you jump on the treadmill or run through to the park. “I suggest walking barefoot or in barefoot shoes for weeks, even months before running in them,” says Le Vesconte. “I also advise going barefoot on grass to walk, run and rewild your feet.
“But even then it takes time to practice skillful technique and condition the body's natural shock absorbers rather than relying on, and being confused by, cushioning - which has a questionable effect. It's important to build mileage very gradually starting with a few minutes, then months and then years.”
You will inevitably feel aches in the calves simply because you're changing the way your feet are operating. It’s all about building up your ability to run with what is considered a more natural gait. You may want to build in a couple of sessions a week, switching between barefoot and wearing your normal shoes to begin with.
“Toe exercises, kneeling, squats and jumping on the spot at quick rhythm, approx 180 jumps per minute with heels kissing the floor, are all great micro drills to prepare the body for running,” says Vesconte.
As your feet and legs get more used to the sensation of engaging those different muscles and tendons, that soreness should become less as you start to become adapted.
“Put aside the performance criteria,” says McDougall. “People want to learn the skill but still want to train for their 5k. Put aside the sense of time and learn the craft. My second big tip I’d give for anyone trying barefoot running for the first time is to check out Lee Saxby’s training videos. He did a couple of training videos ten years ago. To this day, I still think those videos are the best. Lee learned how to translate the basic movements into running. Forget about going fast. Learn the craft.”
If you’re already well versed with all things running barefoot, Vesconte has some advice for staying on top of your minimal game too. “Do the micro drills to strengthen feet, ankles and shock absorbers. Check your technique by video analysis and your aerobic capacity by heart rate. Make sure you are running with upright posture, quick rhythm and a relaxed body, from feet to hands and wrists.”
The best barefoot running shoes
Some call them barefoot, some call them minimalist. Ultimately these shoes stick to the same formula of offering little cushioning, thin soles and very little arch support.
The most famous shoe that has become synonymous with the concept of barefoot is the Vibram FiveFingers. These minimalist shoes look like gloves for your feet offering individual pockets for each of your toes to fit inside of.
The V-Run is designed to combine a light design with enough minimal cushioning to allow them to be used for a range of activities, whether that's road running or hiking up a mountain. It's also made with a mesh fabric to ensure that it's breathable and the midsole has a Dri-lex sockliner to help wick away moisture.
Although it's a barefoot shoe, there's enough support and cushioning to keep your feet safe on tricky terrain and it'll even offer some energy return as you clock up the miles.
Vivobarefoot Primus Lite
The Primus Lite is perhaps Vivobarefoot's most popular road running shoe. Not only is the upper made from an extremely lightweight and breathable material but it's also created with recycled plastics, so it won't just feel good to wear but you know that you're buying from a company that's making a difference.
The outsole is made from an impressively thin rubber layer which is meant to be five times more puncture resistant than any other outsole of the same size. It's also non-marking, so you don't need to worry about ruining your nice new flooring.
Merrell Vapor Glove 4
Another power-player in the barefoot market, Merrell offer an enormous range of minimalist options that vary depending on the level of support you might want. The Vapor Glove 4 sit towards the least supportive of the collection being one of the most minimalist shoes you'll find out there.
The breathable mesh lining and TPU upper are designed to keep your feet feeling fresh while antimicrobial agents in the shoe help to stop them causing odors over prolonged use.
It also incorporates Merrell's Barefoot 2 construction which is meant to enhance proprioception and stability during variable movement.