The Argument For Barefoot Running
The debate of barefoot running benefits and risks will surely continue for many years; this article takes the side of the shoeless and highlights potential barefoot running benefits.
If you'd like to see the other side of the argument, check out "Is Barefoot Running Bad for You?"
Injury Reduction? Maybe, But No Proof Yet
A recent review of peer-reviewed literature found that there is no scientific proof of injury reduction or performance improvements as a result of barefoot running. The literature review does not point to increased injuries, either. There is simply a lack of studies (and data) on the topic.
Shoeless running (or running with minimalist shoes like gorilla shoes) promotes a different running form that many say is more natural. One study (see sidebar) did show that barefoot runners experience less collision force upon striking the ground as a result of forefoot (or midfoot) landings. The researchers were careful not to extrapolate any other conclusions from this data, but proponents of barefoot running will argue that less force on the body and joints is beneficial.
A famous journal article by Dr. Lieberman and colleagues at Harvard University examined the running styles of both barefoot and shod (those with shoes) runners. He found that shod runners tend to strike with the heel first, while barefoot runners typically land on their forefoot or midfoot. When landing on the forefoot, muscles in the midfoot guide the heel down to the ground, so the impact is absorbed more gently across the foot compared with a traditional heel strike. This allows the arch to provide a more cushioned landing with each step.
This benefit is also up for debate. Some say that running without shoes or with minimalist shoes will result in faster times, due in part to the reduction in weight. A study found that the speed improvements are typically around 3%. Speed improvements may also be due to more efficient gaits. Landing on the forefoot or midfoot does not inhibit momentum as much as a heel strike, which is a bit like putting on the brakes.
Other anecdotal accounts report just the opposite--that barefoot running results in a slower pace due to shorter strides.
While the health and performance advantages of running or jogging barefoot remain up for debate, there are a number of other barefoot running benefits that are difficult to challenge:
- Connection to the Earth - With a direct connection between ground and feet, many runners highlight the satisfaction of being closer to nature. With bare feet, runners and joggers can feel blades of grass, texture of the ground, moisture of dew drops and wind through their toes.
- Agility - Shoes provide support, but they also limit some of the fine movements of our feet. Without shoes, there is a great feeling of nimbleness.
- Cost - This may be obvious, but is it worth pointing out that there are fewer costs associated with true barefoot running because one does not need to purchase socks or shoes.
- Foot Strengthening - Whether running without shoes or with minimalist shoes, it is likely that one will develop a different gait that relies on difficult muscles, including those in the middle of the foot. Strengthening the small muscles of the foot may also lead to better balance and coordination.
If you are thinking about running barefoot, I suggest reading How to Start Barefoot Running. Also, if you happen to use an iPhone when you run, be sure to read about my pick for the best iPhone running app. I hope you give shoeless running a try for yourself and that you have enjoyed learning about barefoot running benefits.