Running barefoot is the natural way to run. Humans evolved barefoot. Little babies are born barefoot. Strangely enough, the human body is designed to work properly in its natural state. People ran barefoot or in ordinary walking shoes throughout most of human history.
Special running shoes weren’t even invented until the 1970s. Considering how recent the invention is, it’s rather surprising how completely our culture has adopted these shoes. It actually seems strange or rebellious to see a modern person from the first world do any “serious” running without the proper equipment. Of course, we see kids spontaneously burst into a run during play, and people run barefoot along the beach because there’s a romantic notion about how free and attuned to nature the soul is while running barefoot along the beach. But for ordinary planned running, such as training for a marathon or keeping physically fit, most people automatically assume that the “right” running shoes are essential.
That isn’t really true. So-called running shoes have a slightly elevated heel. The purpose of this heel is to cushion the foot during the hard impact of running, which is supposed to be kinder to your joints. It is true that you feel less impact when you slam your heel into the ground with cushioning than you do without. However, that same heel actually changes the way you run by encouraging you to slam your heel into the ground in the first place. Naturally, without the behavior modification of shoes, most people run with a forward lean that shifts the action onto the balls of the feet. The heels don’t slam into the ground at all. And, of course, your body is well-designed to handle the impact on the balls of your feet and absorb the shock. When you run properly, by which I mean the way nature intended, the extra cushioning makes no discernable difference.
Of course, you may be so used to running with heel-strikes that you would run that way even without the shoes. In fact, many people who have “always” run wearing the recommending equipment find that their bodies have learned to behave that way. If this is the case, then, yes, the cushioning in the running shoes does indeed absorb some of the shock of the impact of a heavy heel strike. People who decide to “go barefoot” without learning to run the natural way (without heel strikes) often complain of injuries. This gives credence to the myth that running barefoot causes injuries. Actually, though, it is running incorrectly that causes these injuries. Whether a runner leaves the shoes on or off, re-training to run the proper way is wise to prevent injury over time.
Running the proper way also provides better exercise. Running with heel strikes uses slightly different muscles. While you still get a workout, you get a somewhat different workout. Research indicates that running on the balls of your feet, the natural way, is a more effective workout for losing weight and toning your legs.
The main reason to wear shoes is to protect the bottoms of your feet from whatever is on the ground. Depending on where you run, that might be a very serious concern. If you are running through a city street where there could be broken glass or other sharp discarded objects, running barefoot might be a very bad idea. Likewise, running through a forest with twigs, acorns, sharp holly leaves, and other natural hazards is also a bad idea. When you run, you really aren’t all that careful where you put your feet (and if you are that careful, then you aren’t running all that well). On the other hand, if you are running in a fairly safe area, such as a running track or your backyard lawn, where you feel confident that there are no hazards to the bottom of your feet, then running barefoot is a fine idea. And if you have some doubts, you can compromise by running with a pair of flat-bottomed tennis shoes or moccasins, which would protect your feet from the ground without affecting the natural motions of your body.
Your body is equipped to run barefoot on any reasonably smooth surface, no matter how hard the surface. Running properly automatically deflects shock through the natural biomechanics of your body at work.
Of course, rough surfaces and unyielding surfaces might annoy the bottoms of your feet if you haven’t developed calluses. You can build calluses up over time, naturally. If you don’t already have the calluses, they won’t appear overnight, so plan accordingly and don’t rub your feet raw by doing too much too soon. Do shorter stints and/or choose barefoot-friendly surfaces such as rubberized tracks or natural grass that won’t hurt tender feet.
With that in mind, give barefoot running a try – carefully. Remember that the biggest problem to ditching the shoes is re-training yourself to run properly. Remember, too, that this re-training is essential to avoid injury. However, that same re-training will save you money in shoes, give you a better workout, and protect you from injuries better than the shoes ever could. It really is a winning package. Just do it – but do it right!
“Barefoot running – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2011. .
Burfoot, Amby. “Should You Be Running Barefoot?” Runner’s World: Running Shoes, Marathon Training, Racing. Runner’s World, n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2011. .
Harvard University. “Barefoot running: How humans ran comfortably and safely before the invention of shoes.” Science Daily: News & Articles in Science, Health, Environment & Technology. N.p., 1 Feb. 2010. Web. 28 Feb. 2011. .