Q: Barefoot Running? Your Thoughts...The concept of barefoot running has recently become the latest fad of the running scene and has even led to a new shoe line that is supposed to simulate thick calluses on the feet. Despite all the hype and excitement of this new phenomenon (that has really been around since the start of time if you think about it) I think it is important to step back and look at the big picture. The first and most important thing to ask ourselves is why, since the creation of man, have we put things on our feet? The fact is, just as it did thousands of years ago, when you step on things like rocks, thorns, and splinters it hurts! So it is important to come to a quick agreement that shoes are good, and for safety should be worn at all times unless under specific exercises provided by your coach.
So the question remains: will barefoot running make you a better runner? The answer is a complex one with many layers. The answer is both yes, and no.
Distance running has been dominated by African countries over the last 20+ years and those athletes are often referenced in the benefit of barefoot running, but there are many factors to consider. First, not all great African runners grow up in a small tribe in the Kenyan highlands but of those who do they are great because of genetics and a superior cardiovascular system that is developed from youth. They are faster runners because they have run 4-6 miles a day since they have learned to walk and run. They walk miles to get fresh water and often run miles just to get to and from school. We here in America on the other hand are shuttled by Mom’s mini-van and are dropped off in the visitor parking lot at school because the drop off zone is too far away. And then we sit at home playing video games. Ok, not all of us are on the computer and video game consoles all-day but the fact is you will not become a great runner because you run barefoot. You become a better runner because you…run. And the more you run, the better you get.
So is there a benefit to barefoot running at all? Taking out genetics, cardiovascular and respiratory development through years of active running, in my opinion barefoot running adds no benefit to the development and over-all fitness of the athlete. But there are benefits to strengthening your lower leg foot muscles, tendons and ligaments that may reduce injuries like plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendon strains and shin splints.
The reason barefoot running works for African runners is that they have been running barefoot from birth and have developed calluses and foot musculature that allows them to handle the pounding that is encountered while running long distances. An athlete who had grown up in a developed country like United States simply cannot handle the force that is put on the body. Secondly these athletes who are running barefoot are running on soft surfaces such as dirt roads and grass. This is not the case here where the majority of athletes run on artificial tracks, paved sidewalks and bike paths. For most athletes, running barefoot for long distances is dangerous and is risking major injury and will tear up your feet. When attending Santa Cruz High School we would do soft sand workouts on the main beach by the boardwalk. Our coach would always make us wear shoes and for good reason: the sand acts like sand paper and takes the skin right off. This is amplified even more on hard surfaces. Not to mention a sharp rock to the arch of the foot could easily lead to serious injury and end your season early. There is a reason that when you look at the feet of the top athletes from all countries they are wearing shoes. Taking all of this into consideration there is still a benefit to barefoot running when done in moderation. So what is the right amount of running without the shoes? That will vary from runner to runner but often a cool down jog on the grass or foot exercises to strengthen your form will give the greatest benefit.
On the other side of the argument shoes have become over complicated and heavy, which makes barefoot running and drills are more important than ever. Getting the right shoe can help with this but not eliminate the need for some barefoot running. For most runners who are light and running under a 5 minute mile you need a light weight neutral shoe with good cushion. Avoid shoes that alter running your running form, foot strike, pronation, etc. These heavy clunkers are like tanks on your feet that are pushed by salesman who really don’t know. If in doubt of what shoe you like head down to the local running store, it is probably owned and operated by runners! All too often kids want to take their shoes off when running because their feet hurt. If you have the right shoe, you should never feel the need to do that.
The following are some common barefoot drills we do on the grass to help strengthen the feet. Athletes are also encouraged to do part of their cool down barefoot as well.
Barefoot drill circuit on grass:
- Inner foot walking
- Outer foot walking
- Heel Walking
- Toe Walking
- Toes up & out walking
- Toes up & in walking
- Heel to tow calf raise walk
- Heals up & out
- Heals up & in
- Shoes are best and should be run for all distances on trails, roads, etc. for safety and injury prevention reasons.
- Barefoot running on soft grass for a cool down is good. (Make sure there is no risk of broken glass, etc.)
- Do barefoot running drills to strengthen your lower leg and foot muscles.
- Barefoot running may help prevent injuries, but also may cause them. Be careful and smart and run barefoot in moderation.
- Barefoot running will not make you a great runner. That comes from consistency, genetics and an inner desire to be great.