Barefoot running is not new; however, running shoes are. As infants we learned to walk and run barefoot. We learned to communicate with the ground at an early age and then at some point we messed it all up by sticking shoes on our feet. We’re the only animals on the planet that insist on shoeing our feet. It’s a big experiment and some would say it’s not working out that well.
In fact, if you understand basic physics, any material you place under your feet will decrease your efficiency, as there’s always a net energy loss or transfer into that material. Not only do you lose energy into the foam under your feet, but you also lose valuable proprioceptive communication with the ground, which allows you to cheat on your running form. Lose this vital earth connection and you’re increasing your chance of injury through a double whammy of lost energy and running form.
For decades I’ve encouraged athletes to run on a treadmill, track, or on the grass without anything on their feet, even if it's only for a couple minutes at a time. Why? To re-teach them how to run with good form, to reacquaint them with the feel of the ground again, and to re-wire their biomechanics. Almost instantly they shorten their stride, improve their posture, and land mid-foot. Because they can feel the ground again, they intuitively run smarter. There’s an old Chinese saying that states, “shoes make your feet dumb,” no kidding.
In addition to improved running, barefoot therapy remains an effective choice for injury rehabilitation. When someone tells me they have battled plantar fasciitis, I’ll have them start by walking around the house barefoot. Most of the time they report feeling better; if that happens, I start them on a journey of weaning off the use of over-protective, builtup shoes.
I remember one client who suffered with plantar pain for years when I started coaching her. After asking many questions to get at the root cause of her foot pain we discovered a long and painful journey through every kind of shoe and orthotic possible. The one thing she hadn’t explored was simply going back to nature. So we tried just that, going bare foot around the house. She immediately reported feeling better.
Then we progressed to a 10-minute barefoot continuous walk on a treadmill – no problems. A few days later we added a minute, then two, and then we tried a oneminute jog in the middle. This progression lead to half marathons and triathlons run in minimalist shoes, with no pain and a great running form. In fact, she had a pair of leather moccasins made for her before the new barefoot philosophy shoes were even on the market, and the moccasins worked well.
So you might be wondering if this “back to nature” philosophy is for you. The true answer lies with your unique body. If you feel better without shoes or better in your slippers around the house, then you’ll probably gravitate to barefoot running and benefit from minimalism without any issues. If, on the other hand, your feet give you pain when going barefoot for even the slightest amount of time, it’s best to stick with the shoes and system you currently have.
If you feel fine barefoot or even better than in shoes of any kind, here are a few common-sense steps and pitfalls to avoid in your smooth transition to barefoot bliss:
First, make a slow progression. After all, most people reading this are Canadians, eh, and our feet have been coddled in shoes for years. You can’t expect them to toughen up over night. It usually takes about three weeks for your body to adapt to any new level of training. Most people find they have tighter calves for the first while as their calves adapt to the added workload of landing mid-foot. This fades with time and patience.
Secondly, if you want to move toward barefoot running but are hesitant to make a full leap-of-faith, try a reverse shoe progression. For example if you have been running in orthotics and built-up control shoes, try some short runs without your orthotics or try your orthotics in a neutral shoe. In this way you take one small step in the barefoot direction. If you sense no problems, stick with that system for a few weeks and then try the next step as outlined below.
Barefoot running progression away from built-up shoes:
1. orthotics with control running shoes
2. orthotics with neutral running shoes or no orthotics with control running shoes
3. basic neutral running shoes
4. racing flats
5. minimal running shoes
6. protective foot covering or barefoot on treadmills or grass
Thirdly, try inserting some very short runs (1 to 2 minutes) on a treadmill or on the grass a couple of times a week. Even if you never intend on changing your foot wear, this exercise goes a long way toward improving your running form by naturally teaching you the right stride length and how to land mid-foot. You can simply take your shoes off in the middle of a run if you’re near a field or start on a treadmill before you shoe-up and head outside.
Fourthly, in conjunction with your new shoe philosophy and progression I would recommend enrolling in a running technique class. There are classes in Natural Posture running: the Pose method or the method I prefer called Chi Running. Regardless of the class you take, from proper form comes sound function. You can’t ignore your technique in any sport. Tune-up your running skills and learn the basics of fluid, efficient running from a professional.
And finally, don’t be overly concerned with the “experts” (myself included), if your body feels healthy, continue what you’re doing. If you feel better without shoes, take them off. I always default to my client’s inner body wisdom before I use any outside template or high tech solution. I remember chatting with a client who told me the minute he came home from work he would flip off his dress shoes and socks and live barefoot around the house. He had pain when running in his built-up shoes and orthotics; now after tossing them, he’s pain free and loving the experience. In the end, when it comes to foot wear, perhaps less really is more!