The Basics of Barefoot Running

In moderation, running barefoot can make you stronger, improve running form and help correct imbalances. Here's how.

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Barefoot running seems to have become a belief system, with Born to Run as its holy book. Accordingly, it has its faithful: the devout minimalists who wear five-toed shoes that make them look a bit like deformed frogs.

Of course, there are also the runners who stay as far from that as possible, maximalists who wear platform shoes as if they’re kids trying to sneak onto a roller coaster with height requirements.

Both trends are products not of science, but marketing. Most of the impartial research indicates no significant change in injury rates for barefoot runners. Barefoot running can in fact be bad for running performance when applied as strictly as some marketing efforts have encouraged. (In 2014, Vibram, the maker of FiveFingers running shoes, settled a class-action lawsuit that alleged there was no basis in science for the company’s claims of injury prevention.)

In addition, running exclusively barefoot or in “barefoot” shoes can actually make some runners slower, especially on downhills or technical surfaces. As with coffee and wine, just because some is good (antioxidants, lower blood pressure), a ton isn’t necessarily better (jitters, auditioning for the next Real Housewives series).

That doesn’t mean you should never run barefoot. In moderation, it can make you stronger, improve running form and help correct imbalances. Some athletes even swear by it to help heal long-term injuries, like IT Band tendonitis or knee pain. And even though no top athletes run exclusively barefoot, barefoot running has been a part of elite training programs for decades.

This type of strategic use of barefoot and minimalist running can have benefits so “huge” that it’s best said in Donald Trump’s voice. Here is why and how to seize the benefits of strategic barefoot running, without having to tithe 10 percent of your income to deformed frog shoes.

1. Learning to Run

Why: The thesis of Born to Run—that barefoot running requires a more natural foot strike, which in turn makes you a better, healthier runner—is mostly correct.

Minimalism encourages a soft, mid-foot landing that occurs under your center of gravity. One study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in December seems to indicate that the “hardness” of one’s foot strike is the primary determining factor in injury rate—meaning that running the right way is more important than running in the right shoes.

The first few times you try barefoot running, you’ll likely be extremely sore in your lower legs. That soreness is good—it means that you are strengthening muscles and tendons that you may have neglected.

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Once those tissues get strong, your running form can be more efficient as you apply the principles to your faster runs in shoes.

How: Once or twice a week, do an easy, aerobic run barefoot in grass or in thick socks on pavement. Start with two minutes during or after your normal run, and gradually increase to around 30 minutes.

After you can run barefoot/in socks for 30 minutes, you should notice a big change in your running form. Your calves will be stronger, with a bit more spring in your Achilles tendons, and the strength increases will make you more comfortable running naturally (in other words, running softly). That transition will likely translate to more efficient running when you are wearing your normal shoes.

Take it up a notch after you reach 30 minutes of continuous barefoot running by adding four to eight strides—light accelerations about 100 meters in length.

2. Preventing Injury

Why: Once you have learned to run barefoot, your risk of injury will likely decrease due to newfound strength and efficiency. To get faster, though, you either need to run more, or run at a quicker pace in training.

Either one will increase your risk of injury all over again, so maintaining those strength and efficiency gains becomes extremely important.  Fortunately, after you’ve learned to run, maintenance is easy.

How: After you have learned how to run barefoot (working up to 30 minutes of continuous running), add three to five minutes of barefoot running to your cool-down, two to four times per week.

A convenient way to do it is to finish your normal run, strip down to your socks and bounce around at a very easy pace on the sidewalk or even in your house. This short, slower barefoot session will make sure you keep the adaptations and soft stride while also “waking up” your Achilles tendons, calves, shins and feet. It will also let you know immediately if there are any potential injuries that you might not feel with more-supportive shoes on.

Plus, if you bounce barefoot in the house, it serves as a helpful reminder to your significant other and/or pet to never take you too seriously.

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3. Coming back from injury

Why: Most runners have played the game Risk—not the board game, but another thing that takes forever and often results in agony for those involved: coming back from injury.

Those first, hesitant baby-doe steps are filled with hope and fear. Will the injury come back? Should I keep going through the ache? Shoes can mask what you are actually feeling, making those questions harder to answer. Barefoot running gives your injury less room to hide, and it can make your comeback smoother, not only by letting you know if you are ready but also by jump-starting the strengthening process.

How: When you are coming back from injury, start with 5 x 1 minute barefoot with one-minute walks in between.

If you can get through that without issues, increase the running intervals to 10 total minutes the next day. Rest on the third day, then start back up for two more days, increasing by five minutes per day (up to 20 minutes of running and walking) before another rest day. Then take out the walk intervals until you can run 20 continuous minutes barefoot. The barefoot return will keep you cautious and make you stronger than ever.

Barefoot running is not a panacea. But when used strategically, it is a valuable tool that can take your running to a whole new level.

RELATED: Should You Be Barefoot Running?

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.

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