The popularity of running barefoot may have surged several years ago in response to Christopher McDougall’s bestseller Born to Run, but many runners still have an interest in running barefoot.
Unfortunately, for most runners who live in developed areas, running barefoot outside is not all that practical or safe. Paved roads can be abrasive, and there can be all sorts of glass, nails, gravel, and other sharp objects you could step on.
For this reason, running barefoot on a treadmill can be an appealing alternative because you are in a controlled and safe environment and running on the smooth surface of the treadmill belt.
But is running barefoot on a treadmill okay? Is it safe to run barefoot on a treadmill? Or should you wear shoes on a treadmill, always?
In this brief article, we will weigh the pros and cons of running barefoot on a treadmill and consider if it is okay to run barefoot on a treadmill.
We will cover:
- Is Running Barefoot On a Treadmill Okay, Or Should You Wear Shoes On A Treadmill?
- Benefits of Running Barefoot on a Treadmill
- Risks of Running Barefoot on a Treadmill
- 3 Tips for Running Barefoot On a Treadmill
Let’s get started!
Is Running Barefoot On a Treadmill Okay?
The short answer is that yes, running barefoot on a treadmill is okay as long as you make a few adjustments to your running form and are cognizant of a couple of potential risks (and that you take appropriate precautions accordingly).
Let’s look at the pros and cons of running barefoot on a treadmill.
Benefits of Running Barefoot on a Treadmill
#1: Running Barefoot Strengthens Your Feet and Legs
Barefoot running strengthens the feet, calves, and Achilles tendons more so than running in shoes because the muscles are activated immediately upon impact to stabilize the foot.
#2: Running Barefoot Leads to a More Natural Gait
Barefoot running can improve your running gait and make for a much more natural stride.
Many runners are prone to overstriding when they wear highly-cushioned running shoes because they are spared from the discomfort of impact.
However, overstriding increases your risk of injury, and it reduces your economy because your center of mass is too far behind your outstretched leg.
This causes two problems: it reduces your forward velocity and running speed by acting like a braking force on your forward momentum, and it places more stress on your joints, which increases the risk of injury.
Because your center of mass is at an extended distance behind the point of impact (your heel), the force is being applied across a long moment arm (or lever).
This increases the torque on your joints, which is why overstriding is associated with an increased risk of running-related injuries.
When you run barefoot, there is a natural tendency to shorten your stride and land on the midfoot or ball of your foot, which is ideal.
These changes are due to the fact that when you run barefoot, you don’t have the extra cushioning provided by footwear, so you get constant tactile feedback (and discomfort!) with each step that encourages you to shorten your stride to optimize how you’re landing.
When you land on your midfoot, your arch acts as a natural shock absorber, which helps reduce the discomfort and stresses of impact. Peak impact forces have been found to be decreased when running barefoot compared to running in traditional running shoes.
It also improves your efficiency because landing more toward the front of your body keeps your forward momentum going.
Although the evidence isn’t definitive, there’s moderate evidence supporting that running barefoot leads to advantageous biomechanical differences, including lower maximum vertical ground reaction forces, less extension and absorption of force at the knee, less foot and ankle dorsiflexion at ground contact, shorter ground contact time, reduced stride length, and increased cadence.
#3: Running Barefoot On a Treadmill Improves Your Balance
Running barefoot also improves your balance, stability, coordination, and proprioception. You receive more kinesthetic feedback running barefoot than when there’s a bunch of synthetic material between your foot and the ground.
The primary reason that runners are drawn to barefoot running is that running barefoot is much more natural than running shod, allowing your muscles and joints to function in their ideal positions.
#4: Running Barefoot Can Improve Your Memory
Studies suggest that running barefoot can improve your memory more than running shod.
This is thought to be because you have to be more mentally engaged to avoid stepping on objects, and you have to quickly process more sensory and tactile feedback, giving your brain a functional workout.
#5: Running Barefoot On a Treadmill Is Safer Than Running Barefoot On the Road
Running barefoot on a treadmill as opposed to the road offers the additional benefits of being free from potential hazards like glass or wayward screws and nails on the roadside.
Finally, if you’re self-conscious, you can also get away with running barefoot on the treadmill in the privacy of your own home rather than having to face potential stares out in public.
Risks of Running Barefoot on a Treadmill
Although running barefoot on a treadmill has its advantages, there are also risks associated with this practice.
#1: Running Barefoot On the Treadmill Can Increase Your Risk Of Injuries
If you are not yet accustomed to barefoot running and jump immediately into running barefoot on the treadmill, you are apt to experience muscle soreness, particularly in the calves and feet.
There may also be an increase in the risk of injuries such as stress fractures, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis, depending on how slowly you transition to barefoot running, your biomechanics, and your overall training.
#2: Running Barefoot On the Treadmill Can Cause Blisters and Burns
In terms of the risks of running barefoot on a treadmill specifically, there is a high risk of blisters, calluses, and skin abrasion due to your feet rubbing against the textured surface of the treadmill belt.
If you are running completely barefoot on a treadmill, you have no protection on your feet, so the repetitive friction generated between your skin and the belt can be quite damaging.
The treadmill belt can heat up as you run, increasing the risk of friction burns and abrasions.
Open wounds are invitations for bacterial and fungal infections.
#3: Running Barefoot On the Treadmill Is Repetitive
There is also a greater risk of overuse injuries if you are running barefoot on a treadmill rather than outdoors.
The treadmill surface is extremely repetitive, so your feet and legs will be subjected to the same stresses repeatedly.
Running barefoot outdoors along grassy fields or trails largely negates this risk.
3 Tips for Running Barefoot On a Treadmill
If you do decide that running barefoot on a treadmill sounds like something you would like to try, here are a few tips to increase the safety of barefoot running on a treadmill:
#1: Start Slowly
Especially if you are just beginning to run barefoot, only start with very short bouts of barefoot running on the treadmill. A minute or two can be enough at the beginning.
Also, dial back the speed on the treadmill while you are getting used to running barefoot.
Slowly progress over a matter of weeks and months if you are not experiencing any pain.
#2: Shorten Your Stride
Shortening your stride and landing softly on your feet will reduce the risk of injury and optimize your running gait.
#3: Consider Wearing Socks Or Minimalist Shoes
Although your socks will eventually get worn out and need to be replaced, running in socks rather than completely barefoot can be a good way to reduce the risk of blisters when running barefoot on the treadmill.
The better option is to wear minimalist or “barefoot“ running shoes (zero-drop running shoes) that provide a thin layer of material between your foot and the treadmill belt.
These shoes may not give you every ounce of the potential benefits of barefoot running, but mitigate the risk of skin damage to your feet.
Taking these precautions can help you embrace the benefits of running barefoot on a treadmill while improving your safety.
To ensure safety while running on a treadmill in general, reference our Treadmill Basics Guide.