Just as compact cars are replacing SUVs on America’s roads, thin-soled running shoes are trumping hefty, fat-soled models on running paths everywhere. And, as if to say less is clearly more, some folks are forgoing shoes entirely, at least some of the time.
It’s a surprising retreat from the days when runners believed that the more cushioned the shoe, the better the protection. But savvy coaches and athletes have begun to respond to mounting evidence that pumping up the protection can actually lead to weaker, less resilient feet, thus producing slower race times and an increased risk of injury.
Few athletes are abandoning running shoes altogether. After all, footwear does have its advantages — both in terms of comfort and convenience. (For the latest in barefoot-friendly footwear, see “The Nearly Naked Foot,” below.) But many are adding barefoot workouts — usually grass-field sprints or short jogs — to their weekly regimen. They argue that running without a barrier between foot and ground strengthens the small muscles of the feet and ankles, letting them run more naturally, efficiently, powerfully and safely.
If you’re interested in giving barefoot training a try, begin with short, easy workouts on soft surfaces so that your body can acclimate (more on that in a moment). Once it does, supplementing your routine with barefoot workouts can yield a big step forward in athletic performance.
The Bare Facts
Recent studies by Max Kurz, PhD, a health and human performance professor at the University of Houston, found that running barefoot changes the way the feet contact the ground. Without shoes, the feet land in a less consistent pattern, which requires more coordination — thus training the feet to better read and respond to the running surface.
“Bare feet get immediate sensory information from the ground,” says Kurz. “You instinctively reduce the impact of your feet colliding with the ground.“ When sensory information is received through shoes, though, Kurz notes, “it’s distorted.” This distortion can negatively affect response and may even lead to injuries, he says.
In a 1999 study published in Clinical Mechanics, researchers at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst found that runners who showed more stride-pattern variation were less susceptible to injury. Those findings would seem to favor barefoot running, since it forces you to vary your stride in response to the variation of the running surface. Barefoot running also gets you off your heels, which reduces the ground forces the body must absorb. And barefoot running on uneven surfaces like grass fields strengthens small foot muscles that are underutilized when you wear confining shoes.
And there’s more. A 2005 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that barefoot running might enhance the “elastic energy” of the ankle extensors, adding more spring to your stride. A 2001 study published in the peer-reviewed Sportscience journal showed a 4 percent improvement in energy cost when the shoes came off, meaning that your normal workout may feel less difficult (and require less energy) in bare feet. It also found substantially fewer incidences of ankle sprains and plantar fasciitis among barefoot runners.
Still, Kurz notes, shoes do serve a purpose — and barefoot running does have its liabilities. “If you don’t adjust your gait by running more on your midfoot than your heels, barefoot running will actually increase impact forces, which can produce injuries,” he warns. “That’s why you should probably run most workouts in shoes. But there’s a role for barefoot running in the form of speed drills that train your muscles to be stronger and more adaptable.”
Walk Before You Run
Barefoot training should start with barefoot walking, says Randy Huntington, an Idaho-based speed consultant who coached long jumper Mike Powell and triple jumper Willie Banks when they set world records. “Shoes have done so much to weaken our feet by compromising their reaction to the ground that you need to start very slowly,” he advises. “Walk barefoot the first few times, then start jogging short distances. Only after several weeks of two or three barefoot jogs each week should you try speed training. You can then build up to any sort of speed workout on soft surfaces that you do in shoes.”
Stick to one or two barefoot sessions a week on days when you aren’t doing any intensive training in your main sport. Walk or run on a soft surface, preferably a grass or turf field, because it’s slightly uneven, which forces your feet to react. “Grass is better than sand for speed because it develops pushing-off power from both the hips and feet,” says Huntington. “In sand, ankle push-off power is limited because the force is absorbed. Sand running does improve hip flexion and extension, and you should focus on those two aspects to get the most out of it. In sand running, there is very little reaction to the ground, which is vital in running and sprinting.”
By strengthening your “platform” — your feet — you’re less vulnerable to injury and better equipped to improve your performance. “Stronger feet let you apply more force to the ground, which stores more energy in the legs and creates a stronger elastic push-off,” Huntington explains. “This can make your stride longer and more efficient.”
Still, sometimes the risks aren’t worth the rewards. “Wear shoes if you’re coming back from an injury or have any wounds on your feet,” notes Amol Saxena, DPM, a podiatric surgeon at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in Palo Alto, Calif., who has treated many professional athletes. “And if you’re over 40, give yourself plenty of time to get used to barefoot running. Younger athletes can adapt quickly, but the combination of age and decades of wearing shoes make it a challenging adjustment.”
Trish Graham has adjusted just fine. The 43-year-old speech therapist, who competes in road races and triathlons, does 100-meter barefoot drills on ball fields and fairways near her home in Cary, N.C., and barefoot runs and walks in the sand by her weekend beach cottage in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. “What initially surprised me is that my heart-rate monitor showed I wasn’t working any harder in barefoot drills than when I did them in shoes, yet my finishing speed in 5K races really improved. I had more explosive strength to run faster. The only drawback is that I have to watch for sharp objects.”
Sharp objects aside, the many benefits of barefoot running — from stronger, faster and more injury-resistant legs, to the cool, squishy feel of grass between your toes — may convince you to kick off your shoes as well.