Should We Be Running Barefoot?
Recently there has been a lot of discussion on the concept of running barefoot. There are some purists who suggest we should all be running barefoot, period. Personally, I don’t care for the word ‘should’ in any context. It implies someone else telling us what to do or be, when we all have to decide that for ourselves.
But can we just go run barefoot? To help you answer this, consider how long it has been since you ran barefoot. 20 years, 40 years, 60 years?; most of us have not been running barefoot since we first learned how to run as toddlers (*). How many years of shoes, dress shoes, high heeled shoes, perhaps periods of inactivity, or of modern running shoes do you have in you? These are just a few examples of all the stimulus the body is adapting to every minute of every day. This adaptation happens slowly and if we want to reverse the resulting changes in posture, muscle strength, flexibility, balance and confidence; then it may take time to do so safely with limited risk.
If you decide to one day go for your regular run barefoot, you are suggesting that you have a ‘fast forward undo’ card. Nature probably does not work well that way for most of us. But I am not suggesting that this approach (or any other approach) is wrong or impossible, just that we can be met with resistance if we go against nature. In many cases, running barefoot can be very helpful in reconnecting with our sense of the ground and how we are interacting with it.
[*We might consider that the way we run ‘naturally’ is the way we ran instinctively as young children in bare feet. This is the same way many people or cultures who have been running all of their lives continue to run as an adult. They have maintained the instinct for running efficiently and without injury. There are numerous images and videos on the internet - some additional examples of ‘natural’ running might be many Kenyan marathon runners, and also the Tarahumara Indians from Mexico. More on this in a related blog post: Natural Running Technique.]
Here are some challenges to running barefoot:
- Let’s face it, most runners are Type A personalities. Running ‘less’, get ‘slower’ or take a few ‘numerical’ steps back to move forward in a new way is difficult. In our society, we tend to want ‘more’ and want it ‘now’. Going barefoot will require a period of adaptation with limited expectations of speed and distance to reduce chances of over-stress and injury. Running barefoot takes constant focus, ongoing practice and patience. There are few shortcuts to developing new habits. The most effective approach is likely to make Gradual Progress resulting in long term success.
- Running barefoot is best done with relaxed feet. Putting feet/body/mind in the unfamiliar situation of being barefoot on an unfamiliar surface will likely result in mental apprehension and physical tension, particularly in our feet. Many runners run tense and stiff already as it is in shoes, so being barefoot may present an even larger challenge to staying relaxed. Relaxed feet means a midfoot (fullfoot) landing and results in less stress at impact, less effort in the lower legs, less overall tension, less resistance to motion, and even a reduction in the fight or flight response that can exist if you run on your forefoot.
- It can be dangerous out there. Danger exists on the roads, sidewalks, everywhere; even on the trails and grassy areas you will find man-made (and natural) obstacles to distract you and promote apprehension. Unfortunate, but reality.
Here are just a few approach options:
- Option A: Do nothing. This is heading out the door, shoes or shoeless, and hoping for the best. Given that 65-80% of all runners get injured every year, we might consider learning all that we could possibly do to avoid being part of that statistic. Many times a simple and subtle adjustment can have a significant effect on our running experience.
- Option B: Run barefoot and let your body figure out the necessary technique. In this case, the body provides feedback to the mind; and the mind attempts to make adjustments. This approach can be risky, frustrating and can sometimes take a lot of time via trial and error. This approach may also not result in the highest possible level of running efficiency. To this ‘let the body guide you’ approach, you might add a few ideas suggested by others.
[Note: Even cars these days have a powerful computer that uses sensors to make operational adjustments. The difference here is that the computer is pre-programmed with a complete understanding of how the vehicle is designed and how it operates most efficiently.]
- Option C: Learn how to run barefoot before you run barefoot; so that you could run barefoot if you wanted to. Meaning, re-program the human computer. This approach is mind/body, where the mind and body act as a team. The mind directs to the body based on learned principles; and the body provides feedback to that process. In this case, basic knowledge of anatomy, principles of nature and laws of physics can be applied proactively to improve technique. As technique improves the body will naturally sense and signal a change in footwear is available. Then small steps to change footwear occur generally along this path: Motion Control shoes to Stability to Cushioning to Racing Flat to Minimalist to Barefoot. Small steps and a gradual adapt-in period are used for the body to get comfortable with any change. In this case; technique, balance and confidence are all developed in parallel. Also in this case, this approach is clearly Rooted in Principles which can each be used more or less depending on one’s own experience. When or if you change your footwear is based completely on your own instinct and experiences.
Do I Personally Run Barefoot?
I don’t, but have a very good sense that I could. I run almost all of my miles in very light, very flexible trail racing flats. I started working on my running technique about four years ago in a very stiff Motion Control running shoe. As I improved my running technique over months, I found I needed less and less shoe. As I worked on my alignment, I reduced pronation and moved to a cushioning shoe. As I improved my interaction with the ground, I reduced the need for cushioning and moved to racing flats and trail racing flats. This also increased my ability to sense my interaction with the ground.
I now run 100% of my miles on all surfaces in New Balance 790 Trail Racing Flats. I have recently started running more and more without any insert at all. I also keep my shoes tied loose. I slip them on and off without needing to untie them. This does two things. First, it keeps my feet very relaxed since the shoe does not constrict my movement and allows it to land naturally within my shoe. It also gives me constant feedback on my running technique. If my feet slide around in my shoe, then my technique must be off due to undesired horizontal forces in my feet. So my chosen shoes have actually become an aid to my technique practice with limited to no interference.
I have run short distances at times barefoot to get feedback on my running technique. I also use running barefoot at times with my clients. There is nothing like a hard surface to teach someone how to be ‘soft’.
I have considered running barefoot more but sense this would add risk in terms of safety, and adversely affect my focus on technique. I personally want to explore the unknown path more while further refining my technique. Being barefoot may interfere with those goals.
Here are a few general Chi Running technique points to consider for both barefoot and shod (**) running:
- Aligned posture with shoulders over hips over ankles, and with a level, stable pelvis
- Relaxed lower legs, ankles and feet
- Midfoot (full-foot) landing to use primarily the structure of the lower leg/foot for momentary support
- No lower leg effort, no pushing off with the feet/toes
- Highly efficient position and motion by cooperating with the forces of nature; which means a subtle forward lean from the ankles to engage the pull of gravity and feet landing under the posture line and not in front of it
[** shod, an interesting new term meaning shoe-d.]
There are many running ‘technique’ approaches to consider, and there are some who take a purist position on ‘right’, ‘wrong’ and ‘should’ – a position I do not take. We all have to decide what works for us. I am partial to Chi Running due to my own success implementing its simple principles and their benefits. My experience is higher and higher levels of effortless running with virtually no recovery; and the elimination of all aches/pains and injury. Perhaps there is just one Chi Running concept that will make all the difference for you. Or perhaps there are more of these time-tested principles of nature that can be helpful. After all, we are talking about running more ‘naturally’. Proactively applying principles of nature seems like it could be an efficient approach to moving in that direction.
[Note: If you are a walker (aren’t we all ...), then Chi Walking is a great way to apply the same principles of nature to walking and hiking. And applying more focus to walking can lead to higher levels of running technique since we get to practice our running all day long].
Please share your thoughts and any questions in a comment below.
Chi Running®/Chi Walking® Certified Instructor
- injury prevention,
- barefoot running