Running in bare feet sounds like madness to many of us. The thought of sharp stones, hot asphalt and stubbed toes is enough to put some people off the idea, but is it really that crazy? Humans and their genetic ancestors had been walking barefoot for literally millions of years before anyone invented shoes, and many indigenous peoples around the world still do so. In fact, there may be advantages from running barefoot both for you body and your technique.
Proponents of barefoot running suggest that it is healthier for the feet and legs. Instead of landing on the heels when running, this is the most common technique when wearing running shoes, barefoot runners land on the ball of the foot. This allows the arch to absorb the shock of impact, rather than transferring it into the knees or hips. Interestingly, this is also the technique taught by free-runners, who leap across rooftops and often have to land safely after dropping from great heights. They may also crouch and roll to avoid injury, but landing on the balls of the feet is a key feature of the discipline.
There is also some research, which backs up the health claims, although admittedly not much. There is evidence that running barefoot places less stress on the knees, for example, and it has been found that people buying expensive, padded running shoes are more likely to be injured. It seems that the padding in these shoes encourages incorrect technique.
It may be useful then for runners to at least try some barefoot running as part of their training. As much as anything, running without shoes allows you to feel more in contact with the ground, so you are in a better position to know if you are doing harm. The problem remains, however, that on a hot summer day bare feet can burn very easily in an urban environment. There is also the fact that most of us are not used to walking barefoot, and do not have the calluses on our feet to protect us from cuts and scrapes.
Luckily, you needn’t be completely barefooted to get the benefits of more natural running; you can wear minimalist or barefoot running shoes. These are designed to allow the feeling of running barefoot by having a more flexible and lightly padded design. Vibram FiveFingers, for example, have a separate space for each toe, and allow the foot to flex and grip more naturally. Other designs include the simple-but-stylish Terra Plana Evo, and ultra-breathable New Balance Minimus.
If going completely barefoot seems like a step too far for you, but you want to improve your running, try going minimal. You won’t regret it.