Barefoot Running Basics

One reason running appeals to so many people is its simplicity. No advanced skill is required, it can be done anywhere and at any time, and you only need one piece of equipment: a good pair of running shoes.

Some people, though, believe running can be even simpler than that. Just leave the running shoes at home.

Behind the Barefoot Running Trend

It’s riding a new tide of popularity, but barefoot running is not new. People have been running barefoot or with less-supportive shoes for centuries — in fact, the modern running shoe wasn’t invented until the 1970s. But the barefoot trend is currently getting more attention thanks to best-selling books and a vocal community of fans.

Barefoot running enthusiasts claim there are many advantages to running without shoes, including improved foot strength, better balance, fewer injuries and a more natural running style. And while more research is needed, a few studies have backed them up.

Why the benefits? It may have to do with how the foot strikes the ground, and the effects of the design of athletic shoes.

- Foot strikes: One study found that barefoot runners usually hit the ground forefoot first (which is called a forefoot strike) or mid-foot first (a mid-foot strike). Runners who wear athletic shoes, on the other hand, tend to land heel first (a rear-foot strike). Heel-first strikers hit the ground at a force up to three times that of their body weight, but experts say forefoot and mid-foot first strikers hit the ground at a lesser force, which may lower their risk of injury. Running forefoot or mid-foot first may also help build foot and ankle strength.

- Athletic shoe design: Running shoes are made to reduce the chance of injury. The shoe absorbs some of the shock of striking the ground and the cushioned heel makes running more comfortable. But some barefoot running advocates say that arch support and stiff soles may weaken foot muscles and arch strength, which can potentially lead to injury.

Too Good to be True?

Before you hit the ground running without shoes, take note: experts from the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) say that more research is needed to sort out the possible risks and benefits of barefoot running. It’s unknown if barefoot running really lowers the risk of injuries — no conclusive studies have been done yet comparing the injuries of barefoot runners to runners who wear shoes. In fact, barefoot running may actually cause problems. If you step on something, you could get wounded. In addition, barefoot running may put extra stress on the feet, since there are no shoes to help absorb the shock.

If you want to try barefoot running, check with your doctor first. Running without shoes may not be safe for everyone. The APMA says that runners should talk to a podiatrist (foot care doctor) with a background in sports medicine about all aspects of running.

Another Option: Minimalist Shoes

The athletic shoe industry is aware of the barefoot running movement, and is responding to it. Several companies now offer “minimalist” shoes, a middle ground between traditional athletic shoes and going barefoot. Depending on the brand, minimalist shoes may:

-Offer little or no cushioning, support or stability control.

-Have “toe slots” (like gloves, the shoe fits around each toe individually).

-Weigh half as much as regular running shoes.

-Protect the soles of your feet from injury.

Make sure to follow the directions that come with minimalist shoes. The manufacturer may suggest only wearing the shoes for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, once a week at first. And it may be best to start out running on a flat surface, such as a treadmill. Check out these LIVESTRONG treadmill reviews.

Have you ever tried barefoot running?