Barefoot Running – Is it Healthy or Harmful?

By Dr. Aaron V. Mares MD, UPMC Sports Medicine

Running barefoot, or natural running, has only become trendy in North America in the last few years. Christopher McDougall’s 2009 best-seller Born to Run is oft credited with kicking off the craze in North America, though our ancestors have been running sans shoes for over a million years.

Yet, don’t we need good shoes to properly support our arches and cushion soles from impact?

Not necessarily, say Harvard researchers. The main consideration is your foot strike, according to four collaborators who studied the biomechanics of foot strikes and its application to running barefoot or with minimal footwear.

Lieberman, Venkadesan, Daoud and Werbel compared habitually barefoot runners with their counterparts in modern running shoes and found that experienced natural runners tend to land with a forefoot or mid-foot strike.

Landing in this way does not have the same effect as a heel strike, which can cause sudden and great impact. Therefore, habitual barefoot runners with a forefoot or mid-foot strike don’t necessarily need modern running shoes, with built-up heels.

Now, does this mean barefoot running is safe for all runners? Not in the least. Modern advertising campaigns might have you believe that running with shoes is safer, or vice versa. The truth is, science hasn’t proven one way or the other whether running barefoot is safer, or that it makes athletes less prone to running injuries.

Each year, some 30% of runners experience injuries, many as the result of problems in the feet or lower legs. For some, running barefoot simply feels natural; it really is a matter of preference. If you’re considering giving it a try, take precautions to reduce your risk of injury:

  • Barefoot running encourages a forefoot strike pattern; however, this may take time to develop, particularly if you are accustomed to a heel strike stride. Start slow and conscientiously work on your stride.
  • Train in a safe area free of glass, metal shards, or other potentially harmful debris. Walk through first with shoes if you are uncertain.
  • Stretch properly and try a dynamic warm-up, rather than running at a reduced pace to get your body going.

The decision to run barefoot is really one of preference. With good form, it can help runners develop stronger foot and calf muscles. However, it can also put runners at risk of developing Achilles tendonitis while moving from heel strikes to the barefoot-friendly forefoot strike.

Even skilled runners should consider it a new activity in the beginning and train accordingly. Making the switch from modern running shoes may not be as simple as it seems; approximately 75% of runners with shoes on heel strike. Harvard researchers noted that in their laboratory setting, many runners asked to run barefoot on a treadmill for the first time would correct their stride in order to land with a forefoot strike. Not all did, however. Understandably, it may take time to correct your form to a strike suitable for natural running.

Gradually work up to greater speeds and distances, mindful of your strike and what your body is telling you about it.

Have you tried barefoot running? Share your experience in the comments!

Guest blogger Dr. Aaron V. Mares is a Pittsburgh native and board-certified internist, practicing physician affiliated with UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. He treats all types of sports and non-sports related musculoskeletal conditions, and also serves as an associate team physician for the Pitt Panthers, as well as assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

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MarathonTraining.com was one of the premier online resources for marathon training information, run from it's inception by author and coach Art Liberman. Now the MarathonTraining.com archives exist on Marathon Handbook, for future generations of runners to enjoy and learn from!

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