Barefoot Running

Origins of Barefoot Running

Barefoot running didn't really originate from anywhere in particular. It has been around for centuries, and is one of our original means of transportation. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors never had fresh Nikes to use when chasing animals for hunting or foraging through the forest! They had to rely on the strength and control of their own two feet to carry them across any type of terrain that they encountered. The advent of and widespread use of running shoes really began to take shape in the 1940s to 1960s as Adidas, Puma, and Nike took the running culture and made it their own. 
Aside from added protection and support, one of the main reasons for the invention of running shoes was to increase stride length. Naturally, when barefoot, we tend to run on our toes. Running shoes allow us to heel strike with every stride, providing the opportunity for a longer stride length and thus fewer times that our feet have to push off the ground during a race. The idea was that this would allow the runner to expend less energy during a race, since they are taking fewer strides.

Interestingly, the current research on both recreational and collegiate runners shows that there is not much of a difference in energy expenditure when running with running shoes and running barefoot. Some research has even indicated that barefoot running may require less energy in some situations, but I'll touch on this below. 

Try it yourself, next time you run, start off by running on your toes (even with your shoes on) and then switch to your normal running mechanics (which will most likely be heel striking in running shoes). See which one allows you to achieve a longer stride length more easily.

There are still some cultures in the world that rely solely on running barefoot. The Tarahumara, a group of indigenous people living in the mountains of Mexico, are widely considered some of the best long-distance runners in the world, competing in and winning some of the most grueling ultramarathons on the face of this earth, barefoot. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall chronicles the Tarahumara and their ultramarathon successes, and is also one of the main reasons that sparked my interest to try barefoot running for myself. If any running junkies are looking for their next read, I would recommend Born to Run without a doubt.

Running footwear these days can be largely classified into three main categories; barefoot, minimalist, normal. Minimalist shoes are the in-between, where they offer very little heel lift and support compared to a normal running shoe, but still have a sole for you to run on. Studies have also shown that minimalist running shoes allow for very similar running mechanics as barefoot running, while still providing protection and some cushioning for your feet.
Benefits of Barefoot Running

  • Natural, free feeling. This may be a more personal opinion here, but I love the feeling of stepping out the door in the summer time with nothing but short shorts on (for those of you that know me, you know that short shorts are my norm) and going for a run.

  • Stride frequency is greater in barefoot running, and some research has shown that increasing stride frequency, and thus decreasing stride length leads to a reduction in running-induced knee pain.
  • A study on recreational distance runners found a greater running economy in those running barefoot when they were running at 85% of their VO2 max. This means that these athletes were using less energy when running barefoot, but only when they were running at a pretty fast pace.
  • Interestingly, some studies have also shown an increase in mental focus and brain stimulation extending beyond the runs themselves. The proposed relationship is due to the fact that when running barefoot, one must be more much more focused on the terrain that they are traversing, looking for potential hazards that can damage their unprotected feet.

Cons of Barefoot Running

  • Comfort level. For obvious reasons, running shoes may feel much more comfortable to run in compared to barefoot, especially depending on the surface that you are running on, and personal comfort can play an exceptional role in running performance.
  • Foot hazards, everywhere. As I mentioned above, you need to be even more focused on the task at hand when running barefoot, constantly scanning for any hazards on the ground that could cut or damage your feet. This is especially a greater danger in a city as populated as Toronto. By no means am I recommending going to run on the streets of Toronto barefoot. Consider trying out this running style on paved or dirt trails, where litter and foot traffic is greatly reduced.
  • Although barefoot running produces much lower impact on our bodies due to the shorter stride length, it comes with a trade off by increasing the stress on our ankle joints. This is due to the fact that we have now lost the ankle and foot support normally provided by our running shoes. 
That last point highlights how especially important it is to progressively and carefully transition to barefoot running, if it is something that you want to try.

Transitioning to Barefoot Running

Just like any new training program, you don’t want to jump into it cold turkey, without first priming and progressively adapting your body to the new stresses that it will soon be enduring. Our feet are used to being in shoes for the majority of our lives, and thus, the multitude of small foot muscles that are designed to support our foot are not developed enough to immediately begin working properly as we take away the support of our beloved running shoes. In Born to Run, the author Christopher McDougall gave a great analogy to help me further understand this point…
“Shoes are like casts for our feet. When you wear a cast on your leg for example, those leg muscles don’t get used for a while and undergo atrophy (become weaker/smaller). The same thing happens to our foot muscles. We do not need them when we have shoes on, because the shoes are doing the job to support our feet, so those muscles get weaker and smaller and aren’t cut out to support our bodyweight during a long-distance barefoot run, where our feet are constantly pounding into the surface in which we are running.”
This analogy brings me to my first main point for the transition to barefoot running…intrinsic foot strengthening exercises. The exercises below are designed to strengthen those small muscles that we will need to support us during barefoot runs as well as to reteach us to control the movement and stability of our feet and ankles. This is by no means an exhaustive list of possible exercises but are some of the more important ones that I have found through my research and trial and error on myself. The video links that I have added are explained very well and can help to clarify each of the below exercises.
  • Foot Doming 
    • Purpose: to strengthen the muscles that support our medial arch 
    • Avoid curling your toes when performing this exercise
    • Sets and Reps: 2 sets of 15-20 reps, holding each rep for 3-5 seconds.

  • Toe Curls
    • Purpose: strengthening the individual muscles that control the movement of our toes
    • Put a towel under the tips of your toes and work to curl that inwards towards your heel
    • Sets and Reps: 2 sets of 15-20 reps, holding each rep for 3-5 seconds.

  • Heel Raises (AKA Calf Raises)
    • Purpose: to strengthen the muscles surrounding the ankle joint, readying it for the added stress of running barefoot.
    • Once comfortable with this, switch to doing the heel raises one leg at a time.
    • Sets and Reps: 2 sets of 15-20 reps, holding each rep for 3-5 seconds.

  • Box Jumps/Drop Jumps
    • Purpose: to ready your feet and ankles for the impact of barefoot running, since there will be no shoes to absorb any of the force during the runs. Even though the impact of barefoot running is less than that of running with shoes, your feet are still not used to absorbing much impact, since the rubber soles of our shoes always do that job for us.
    • Start with a low box and increase the height of the box as you get more comfortable with the movement and impact.
    • Sets and Reps: 2 sets of 15 jumps.
Video Link:
I would begin performing those exercises for at least 2-3 weeks while still running in normal running shoes. It may be smart to then transition to running in a minimalist running shoe, while still performing the above exercises, before finally kicking off the shoes and hitting your first barefoot run. When you finally get to barefoot running, progression is still key. Don’t go crush a 10k for your first run. Start with 1km barefoot, then finish your run with shoes. Slowly work your distance up with each passing week. The key here, as mentioned above, is slow stepwise progression.

My Thoughts
As for which type of running you should do, there isn’t one type that is inherently better than the other. There are risks and rewards that come with each type of running, and it ultimately comes down to personal preference for which type of running you want to try. I am a very adventurous person, and I love being my own guinea pig when it comes to fitness related goals and techniques, hence why I became very keen to try barefoot running after reading Christopher McDougall’s book. Unfortunately, in Canada we only have a few short months to enjoy this new form of running, before the toes begin to freeze and the ground becomes even harder and more unforgiving. 
If transitioned to carefully and properly, barefoot running can be an exciting way to change up your training routine. Not to mention, strengthening your intrinsic foot muscles goes a lot further than just making you a stronger barefoot runner. Stronger arches, less incidence of plantar fasciitis and increased control and awareness of our feet are just some of the other benefits that can come from adding controlled movement into our feet and ankles outside of the confines of shoes.

Written By: Brad McGarr, Strength/ Conditioning Specialist
Instagram: @bradmcgarr

Available for appointments at our Yorkville location


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.