Last updated: 29-Aug-18
By George Brill
Barefoot running is a rather controversial topic. So, does it have a place in ultra running? In this article, I give the low-down on why, and how, you might want to integrate barefoot running into your training.
I actually began my running career barefoot and only later transitioned to trail shoes (an extremely frustrating process – more on that later). Even so, I’m still an avid supporter of barefoot and think that it can be of huge benefit to all runners. Like so many others, for me it all started with Born to Run…
Born to Run and the barefoot revolution
Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run (2009) sparked the barefoot revolution. It claimed that most running injuries were a direct result of cushioned shoes. The idea was that despite blocking pain, shoes don’t protect from impact. Devoid of our feet’s sensory feedback, we run ourselves to injury.
As inspiring as the book is, it’s definitely not the whole story. Many runners run with shoes for years without injury, and barefoot running clearly has its limitations in ultra distance and on technical terrain. It led to a lot of heated debate.
My stance is that whilst barefoot is not something that we as ultra runners can, or want to, turn to full-time, it can be extremely beneficial when integrated judiciously into our training. But first, some context.
BAREFOOT: THE ORIGIN OF RUNNING
There’s no doubt that barefoot running is an ancestral skill. Bramble and Lieberman’s endurance running hypothesis suggests that distance running was a central component of the early Homo evolution. Although the theory is still contested, it is clear that our species is designed to run far and, of course, originally this would have been barefoot.
There are many examples of barefoot (or nearly barefoot) running in traditional societies. These include the famous Tarahumara, Zulu war parties and the persistence hunts of Southern African Bushmen. Much early recreational running was also barefoot. The first fell runners in the Lake District ran barefoot and Bob Graham himself supposedly ran each peak barefoot before attempting the round! Any shoes that did exist were unrecognisably minimalist compared to the trail shoes of today.
So it’s pretty clear that as a species we are fully capable, and even designed, to run barefoot. Perhaps the more relevant question is why bother?
THE BENEFITS OF BAREFOOT RUNNING
I’m not going to go into arguments surrounding the health implications of running with shoes. I do believe that giant heel drops and excessive cushioning are bad ideas. But that doesn’t mean we all need to go fully barefoot.
Rather, here are the key reasons for why barefoot running is a worthwhile supplement to any runners training.
Running barefoot (or with a couple of millimetres of leather sole) was how our species evolved to run. Barefoot is therefore a brilliant coach of technique. It’s particularly good at teaching correct landing technique, since there’s so much sensory feedback coming from each impact.
I personally find that I run noticeably faster and smoother barefoot. My cadence naturally increases and, put simply, I feel like I’m flowing. Regularly running barefoot is an excellent way to work on improving your technique.
2) Foot strengthening
One thing Born to Run nailed is the muscle-wasting effects of wearing shoes. You can clearly see the muscularity of a barefoot runner’s feet – and that’s how it should be. Barefoot running also strengthens the foot and ankle’s tendons.
The strengthening occurs because the foot has to actively stabilise the landing, in a way that just isn’t necessary in shoes. As natural running expert, Shane Benzie, once told me, ‘running barefoot is like giving your feet a workout’. Strengthening your foot muscles and fascia brings all sorts of benefits – not least that injury becomes far less likely.
3) Injury recovery and rehabilitation
Linked to the above points, barefoot running can be extremely effective at rehabilitating injuries and even curing inherent biomechanical issues. It’s how our anatomy evolved to run, so it makes sense that it helps balance out musculoskeletal weaknesses and imbalances.
In particular, there is a lot of narrative evidence of barefoot helping with flat footedness. I’ve never been flatfooted, but it says something that while I ran exclusively barefoot, I actually dropped from a UK13 to a UK11.5 as my arch visibly rose – that’s a big difference!
4) Connection and awareness
Barefoot running is the most natural form of running possible (omitting going naked, but we’ll leave that for another time…) You’re more in tune with your body and it allows you to feel and experience the trails you’re running on in a way that shoes make impossible. It’s no surprise with 150,000+ nerve endings in the soles of the feet.
But it goes beyond ground-feel to something psychological. It feels right and natural, and your awareness of the world around you increases exponentially. A growing body of research actually links barefoot contact with the ground with psychological and physiological function and wellness – it’s a pretty mind-blowing read.
To be honest, more than anything else, going barefoot makes me happier and I enjoy the run more. It’s like a reconnection with a more primal and natural existence: a kind of meditative cure for modern society. One of those things that you only realise you’re missing when you do it.
‘When you run on the earth and with the earth, you can run forever.’
Raramuri (Tarahumara) proverb.
LIMITATIONS AND ISSUES OF BAREFOOT
1) Risk of injury
It’s always the first question I get asked with barefoot running. Why risk cutting your foot? The risk is far lower than you might think. In four years of regular barefoot trail running the worst I’ve had is a few thorns.
Feet toughen up fast, and where rocky trails may have given you an issue before, after a while the feeling actually becomes pleasurable – just build slow. After all – if the barefoot fell runners of old could manage Lake District scree, then we have no excuse! There’s really very little on natural trails that’ll damage you, but do be wary in urban areas with a risk of broken glass and other nasties.
Musculoskeletal injury on the other hand is common, and often held unfairly against barefoot running. It’s inevitable without proper transitioning – see below for details.
2) Not a complete solution
However hard your feet get, you’re not going to be able to run a 100 miler, or safely complete the Glen Coe Skyline, entirely barefoot. The cold is also an issue, and whilst you’d be surprised what you can deal with, you’ve got to be sensible.
Many situations in an ultra runner’s training and racing just require shoes.
There’s no doubt you’re also going to be faster on anything technical in shoes. This is for the same reason we recommend barefoot for learning technique – you get less feedback in shoes. It’s a trade-off – just use your common sense.
3) Using shoes again!
My feet got so much wider from running exclusively barefoot that I can’t fit into anything but the widest trail shoes. I also couldn’t run in anything with more than a very minimal heel drop.
Of course, this was after years of exclusively barefoot, and its unlikely to be an issue with occasional barefooting, but worth being aware of. Even so, it’s likely that using high heel drop shoes alongside barefoot training will limit what it can teach concerning technique.
INTEGRATING BAREFOOT INTO YOUR TRAINING
I don’t advocate a complete barefoot transition – instead use it as a training drill to work on technique and strengthen your lower legs and feet. Used regularly it’ll improve your efficiency and bulletproof your muscles and connective tissue.
It’ll also help you develop a greater awareness of your body and rediscover the joy of running.
My recommendation is to try to build up to a few miles each week in recovery runs. That way you can concentrate purely on technique and body awareness without having to worry about running long or hard. It’s also a great way to make recovery runs feel more useful.
To avoid injury, you need to start painfully slow. However, accomplished a runner you are, if you’ve worn shoes your feet will be weak.
It’s very easy to let the newfound freedom and smoothness of barefoot lure you into too much too soon, and you likely won’t feel the injury until too late. Literally, start with walking. Only when you’re comfortable with that should you try running.
Keep it short and start on hard surfaces such as tarmac. This stops you learning bad landing habits as you’ll feel any major issues pretty quickly. Here’s a good guide on making the transition: How not to start barefoot running. The key point is take it slower than you think you need and listen to your body.
I won’t go into details of technique here, but the key is small steps with a high cadence. I recommend reading these articles:
- The Biomechanics of running: An afternoon with Shane Benzie
- How to run barefoot
Aim for a midfoot landing, with heel and ball of the foot landing simultaneously. Heel striking has to be left behind – it just doesn’t work for barefoot on anything other than the softest surfaces. Forefoot striking works, but can lead to injuries such as tendon inflammation (I learnt that one the hard way…)
In terms of sole sensitivity on uneven ground – again take it slow. If you overdo it your feet will be too tender to run. The resilience will come – much of it is psychological anyway.
It will take time but be patient. You can run far and fast in your regular training, so build the barefoot gradually.
Personally, I think ‘barefoot’ shoes are a bad idea. The reason you’re integrating barefoot into your training is to reap the benefits of increased ground feedback – so why just mask it again.
Barefoot shoes can also trick you into thinking you can go further than you’re ready for by blocking the pain.
It’s true that later on, when you’re well adapted, they can allow you to go for longer. But if you’re only using barefoot as a training tool, that’s unnecessary and risking injury. Obviously if you plan to fully transition to barefoot then it’s a different story.
What I do advocate is a minimalist approach to shoe support and heel drop. If you’re genuinely interested in barefoot and its benefits, it’s probably worth transitioning to a low heel drop and wide toe-box, if you haven’t already.
It’s more natural in terms of our biomechanics and far more compatible with barefoot running.
Adaptations in tendon length makes simultaneously running a high drop and barefoot (read no drop) pretty incompatible – I speak from experience!
So overall the big five take home messages from this article are:
- Barefoot running is the most natural form of running in humans – learn from this.
- Barefoot running can strengthen our feet, develop better technique, and put us better in tune with our body and the trails.
- Barefoot running has significant limitations, especially for ultra distance and technical trail runners.
- Barefoot running is best used as a training tool rather than a complete solution.
- The early barefoot fell runners were superhuman.
Obviously barefoot running is a controversial subject, and it’d be interesting to hear your opinions. Would you consider using barefoot in training? Or do you disagree with everything I’ve said?
About the writer: George Brill is the founder of Human Animal: a lifestyle brand dedicated to exploring natural human ability and inspiring others to live life more fully. As a species we possess an incredible physical and mental potential: only by constantly challenging our boundaries and rejecting the average can we hope to reach it.