A Look at the Risks of Barefoot Running
Is barefoot running bad for you? Doctors and researchers are officially on the fence when it comes to the benefits and risks of shoeless running. However, there is evidence to show that running without shoes, or with minimalist shoes, encourages a more natural running style that reduces "heel strike" and lessens the impact force of each step.
Running "lighter," feeling connected to the earth, and not having to pay for shoes are clear benefits of barefoot running, but what about the other side of the argument? This article takes the side of the shod (those with shoes) and asks "is barefoot running bad for you?"
Potential Harm of Barefoot Running
1. Pain - If you are running truly barefoot and just starting out, you may experience pain due to rocks and bumps on the ground. Your feet are soft and tender from years of wearing shoes and it will take time to build up some toughness. You've got three options here: (1) use a gorilla shoe, or minimalist shoe, to provide thin barrier between your soles and the ground; (2) run on foot friendly surfaces like grass, rubber tracks, or the beach; and/or (3) run on sidewalks or roads, but limit your exposure initially until your feet are conditioned to running barefoot. If you are thinking about running barefoot, I suggest reading How to Start Barefoot Running.
2. Puncture Wounds - This is an obvious danger of running barefoot. If you don't pay close attention to where you are stepping, you may hit a piece of glass, a thorny stick, nail, etc. Even if your feet are conditioned to running barefoot, these object can do some damage. Is barefoot running bad for you? Well, sure it is if you step on a nail, so look out for nails!
3. Infection - If you have a open cut on your foot, it is a bad idea to run without shoes. Some surfaces can be quite dirty and potential contaminate your open wound, leading to a nasty infection.
4. Calf Strain - This is a real risk of barefoot running, especially for first timers. I know from experience. Since barefoot, or minimalist running, encourages a different running style, different muscles are taxed. After my first barefoot run, my calves were beyond sore. I couldn't walk normally for 3 days and running was out of the question for a week. The best way to avoid this problem is to start slowly. Limit your first runs to 10-15 minutes.
5. Blisters - If you are running fully barefoot, there is a good chance your feet will develop blisters as they build up tolerance and develop natural padding. This will pass over time, but if you do not have the patience or tolerance for this process, another option is to wear minimalist shoes that allow you to run with a barefoot style, but with a thin sole padding.
6. Plantar Fascia Strain - As I've mentioned, barefoot running results in a different running gait--one that relies on more work from the tiny muscles in your mid-foot (you plantar fascia). If you are a newbie, breaking these muscles in can result in strain. Once again, the key to avoiding this problem is to start slowly and limit your running time to 10-15 in the beginning. It is also worth noting that some researchers feel the exact opposite--that running with shoes is actually more likely to lead to injuries of the plantar fascia.
7. Achilles Injuries - Much like the research on plantar fasciitis, there is conflicting data on the impact of running barefoot and the risk of injuring your Achilles heel.
Who Should Not Be Running Barefoot?
Experts agree that those with sensory loss to the foot should not be running without shoes. Without proper sensation, there is an increased risk of injuring the foot and not knowing it. Also, individuals with foot deformities that affect gait should avoid the practice of barefoot running, or at least consult a podiatrist before attempting the practice. Finally, if you have an exceptionally small arch, you should also consult a podiatrist before running barefoot with flat feet. If you are in this camp, your foot mechanics may not provide enough cushion, or "bounce," to effectively run barefoot.
If you happen to use an iPhone when you run, be sure to read about my pick for the best iPhone running app.
You may have already known about barefoot running benefits, but now you also know all about the risks of barefoot running and are equipped to answer the question "Is barefoot running bad for you?"