Barefoot running FAQs

When it comes to the question of barefoot running, it could be argued that humans were designed to run with the feet we were given.

While running shoes are now a fact of life, some people have gone back to basics, ditching their runners and joggers to feel the grass (or pavement) beneath their feet. 

Think about it, all you'd need in your lightweight bag is a snack, some gym clothes and a water bottle – no need to take heavy, cumbersome runners!

However, this trend may or may not be right for everyone, so we take a look at some of the questions around barefoot running. 

What's so bad about regular running shoes?

The modern running shoe was only invented in the 1970s. In centuries past, humans ran predominantly in shoes with lightweight soles, sandals or even barefoot. Until the running shoe came along, running footwear lacked the built-up, flat edged heel and cushioned support which became prevalent features of most designs of running shoes. The argument against modern running shoes is that they are counterintuitive to the way in which our bare foot was meant to hit the floor. 

How is running barefoot different? 

A recent study from Harvard University looked at the "striking patterns" of how a runner's foot hits the ground, both without and in regular running shoes. While wearing running shoes, runners were more likely to exhibit a rear-foot strike which put most of the pressure on the heel. Barefoot runners appeared to be hitting the ground using fore-foot or mid-foot strikes, meaning they were literally keeping on their toes. 

Those barefoot runners who running with a fore-foot strike, appeared to be generating less of a "collision force" or impact on their feet than their shoe wearing counterparts. This meant that they effectively reduced the mass of their body coming into contact with the ground. 

Where did the barefoot trend come from?

Barefoot running gained attention when high-profile athletes began to compete barefoot, such as Zola Budd-Pieterse and Abebe Bikila who went on to win the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome with no shoes. A sort of cult following, barefoot or minimalist (wearing lightweight shoes to mimic the effect) running began to spread through participants in the New York Marathon. There is also a Barefoot Runners Society, which has a worldwide presence for those with similar interests. 

What should I watch out for when running barefoot?

If you are new to running barefoot or with minimalist footwear, it may take a while for your muscles to adjust. According to Professor Irene Davis from the Harvard Medical School, our over-supportive shoes have changed the way we are meant to run naturally. "When you support a muscle, it doesn't have to work as hard," Davis told WebMD. "When it doesn't have to work as hard, it gets weak."

She goes on to say that when you change your footwear, your stride can shorten, redistributing the impact from running so that knees, hips and ankles flex to automatically adjust for a softer landing, even on harder surfaces like the road or pavement. Davis also recommends starting slow to phase your body into getting used to running minimalist or barefoot, and interspersing your running with walking or jogging. The skin on the soles of your feet will also need to toughen up to deal with the outdoors after being used to a comfy sock-based environment.  

Those with a history of foot problems should consult a doctor or specialist before beginning ditching their old shoes. It is also worth noting that if you have diabetes or experience any numbness, according to WebMD it might be better for you to stick to your trusty runners and gym socks.