Barefoot Running: Is It Worth the Hype?

Barefoot running is an effective, safe, and fun training tool to help you improve. Unfortunately, it’s widely misunderstood.

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Ever since Christopher McDougall’s epic book Born to Run changed how a lot of runners think about form, ultramarathons, and shoes, there’s been a powerful barefoot movement in the running community.

You might remember the countless articles fawning over the idea of running sans shoes…

Some people even go by names like “Barefoot Ted” or “Barefoot Ken Bob.”

And while I love ditching my shoes to frolic barefoot and feel the grass between my toes, it’s not worthy of changing your name:

  • Long runs are important – where’s Long Run Ted?
  • Strength training is critical – where’s Gym Workout Deborah?
  • Consistency is the secret sauce – where’s Consistency Steve?

You can see why you shouldn’t self-identify with a single element of training: it’s just a single element!

And while barefoot running has a place in nearly every runner’s training, it must be used appropriately (just like you shouldn’t power clean with bad form or run 20 miles without building up to that distance).

That’s what you’re going to learn today: how to incorporate barefoot running safely into your training for maximum benefit and the least injury risk possible.

Let’s start with a big question:

Is Barefoot Running Safe?

“I believe that when my runners train barefoot they run faster and suffer fewer injuries.” – former Stanford track coach Vin Lananna

Barefoot running is as safe as a deadlift or a long run: the poison is in the dose, not the activity itself.

You wouldn’t attempt a challenging deadlift workout if you’ve never spent time in the gym. Nor would you run 20 miles without first running close to 20 miles.

Barefoot running is the same: you must start with a small dose, progress gradually, and recognize that more does not mean better.

Running without shoes places more stress on the muscles and connective tissues of the foot, lower leg, and ankle. But it also reduces impact forces on the knee.

Like anything in life, there are important trade-offs to consider when thinking about running barefoot.

There are also certain things that make any amount of barefoot running riskier. If you…

  • Wear constrictive shoes all day (dress shoes or heels)
  • Don’t spend any time barefoot in your home
  • Rarely if ever wear flip-flops or sandals

… then you might consider yourself “high risk” and therefore be even more cautious about running barefoot.

But if your behavior is the opposite of those risk factors, then you’re low risk.

Congrats! Now you can start to incorporate some barefoot running into your program.

Barefoot Running Technique

Barefoot Running

Fortunately, you don’t need to remember any special technique for running barefoot. It’s almost exactly the same as running in shoes!

In fact, proper running form is actually easier to achieve without shoes because you simply can’t have some aspects of poor form (for example, you can’t aggressively heel-strike barefoot. It’ll hurt too much).

But there are a few differences to keep in mind:

Increase Your Cadence

You’ll probably find it necessary to run with a quicker, shorter stride to reduce impact forces on your lower legs.

A longer, bounding stride is more challenging when you’re barefoot – showing that a higher cadence (or steps per minute) is highly beneficial no matter if you’re shod or barefoot.

Pace Yourself

If you’re just running at your easy pace, you’ll probably need to slow down. Run by effort and feel rather than strictly relying on pace.

After all, you’re not running barefoot to boost your aerobic fitness. You’re doing it to improve your efficiency, get stronger, and reduce your injury risk.

Pace isn’t that important.

The Bottom Line: Is Barefoot Running “Better?”

No – because “better” is meaningless. Whenever someone asks me this, I usually have more questions than answers:

  • In what way?
  • For whom?
  • In all circumstances?

A more productive way to think about barefoot running is that it’s a training tool (just like a track workout).

Is a track workout “better” than a long run? No, because they’re just different. They’re different tools for different jobs.

Just like you wouldn’t attempt a long run or track workout every day, you don’t want to run barefoot every day. The injury risk is too high and you’ll miss out on many important benefits of running with shoes.

But as with any tool – barefoot running can be used appropriately and strategically to further your running goals.

3 Ways to Add Barefoot Running to Your Training

As a coach, I’m always looking for high-impact, low-risk ways to foster improvement.

Running 10 miles barefoot is not a low-risk way to implement barefoot running into your training.

Instead, I prefer small doses that have virtually no injury risk.

Step 1: Barefoot Strides

Strides are accelerations of about 100 meters in length. Graph the effort and it looks like this:

What are strides?

It’s ideal to build up to 4-6 strides, 2-3 times per week after easy runs. And you can do some of those strides barefoot!

By running at a faster pace barefoot, you’re using more of the foot musculature and with higher loads. The effect is stronger foot and lower leg muscles – just what we’re looking for out of barefoot running.

You’re also more effectively reinforcing proper running form. Not only is poor form more difficult when you’re barefoot, but also when you’re running faster.

Two sets of 4 barefoot strides per week would be sufficient for all of the benefits.

Step 2: Easy Running

Rather than do a lot of volume barefoot, adding just a few minutes of it at the end of your run can dramatically reduce the injury risk but still give you a lot of the advantages.

Start with about a minute of running without shoes. Notice how it makes you feel over the following few days. Then in about a week, you can start gradually building up to about 5 minutes of barefoot running.

Don’t believe that “more is better.” Barefoot running is like Elmer’s Glue – a dab will do ya.

Step 3: Barefoot Drills

I’ve long had a soft spot for barefoot form drills in lush grass or on a synthetic turf field. My toes are perking up just thinking about it!

Beyond just feeling good, barefoot drills can help you better reinforce efficient mechanics.

For example, if you’re practicing a skipping drill that prioritizes landing on the midfoot then that’s going to be easier if you’re not wearing bulky trainers.

After a few months of diligence, you can incorporate 2-3 barefoot sessions per week (one of each would be great in this coach’s mind!).

Advanced Barefoot Running

There are just as many ways to incorporate barefoot running into your training as there are workouts you might run.

But one of my favorites is a simple circuit that combines strides with easy running. It takes no more time than 4 traditional strides, but you complete slightly more barefoot work.

I recorded a short video to walk you through the Barefoot Stride Circuit:

Here’s how to execute this circuit:

  • After taking off your shoes, run one barefoot stride
  • Take a few deep breaths for 10-20 seconds
  • Jog slowly to the opposite corner of the infield (field or yard works too!)
  • Take a few more deep breaths (remember: this is not an aerobic session. Catch your breath!)
  • Run another stride
  • Repeat

Don’t jump right into this session – start with 1-2 strides, add some easy running and drills over 4-6 weeks, and then you’ll be ready.

And when in doubt, just run less barefoot. More is not better!

What questions do you have about barefoot running?

Do you run barefoot at all? How?

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