Barefoot Running

Barefoot Running

This is a very hot topic today among runners.  Barefoot running has the potential to improve running form, increase speed and reduce injury if done correctly.  When done incorrectly, it will increase one’s risk of injury.  I expect to see more patients in our clinic with plantar fasciitis and ankle/foot tendonitis due to attempting barefoot running without first preparing their lower extremities for the stresses that barefoot running will create.

If you are considering barefoot running here are key starting points:

First, you must strengthen your foot intrinsic (the small muscles that start and end in your foot).  The intrinsic muscles help support the arches in your foot.  The arches and the corresponding muscles of the foot are the main shock absorbers when your foot hits the ground.  If these muscles are not strong, the forces end up going through your plantar fascia and boney structures, increasing your risk for plantar fasciitis and stress fractures.

Second, you must strengthen your ankle musculature.  The calf muscles help absorb the shock of impact and give you spring to lift back off the ground.  Ankle inversion, eversion and plantar flexion are the most important areas to focus on.

Third, you must GRADUALLY increase your shoeless miles.  If you typically run 3-5 miles and attempt to do this length without a shoe on you will be very sore the next day and run the risk of injury.  A walk-run program is a very good way to start out.  For example, walk 3 minutes, run 1 minute and over time gradually increase the run time and decrease the walk time.  The most important thing is to listen to your body.  If you feel excessively sore and the soreness is lasting more than 24 hours you should not increase mileage, and perhaps back down until the soreness subsides and you gain foot/ankle strength.

If you end up with excessive soreness remember to rest, ice and stretch; back off shoeless running and focus on the strengthening exercises.

Frequently asked questions:

Why is barefoot running beneficial?

Running barefoot encourages midfoot landing versus heel striking.  (Just take your shoes off and try running down the hall, heel striking will be very uncomfortable.)  When a person heel strikes, the ground reaction forces through the ankle, knee and hip are higher than when a person midfoot strikes.  This is due to the natural pronation of the foot.  When the midfoot is the first part to contact the ground the pronation (rolling inward of the foot) absorbs the shock, this is how the foot is designed to function.  Shoes allow us to heel strike due to the cushioning, but the forces through the lower extremity chain remain high.  Midfoot striking with shoes on does not allow the foot’s natural pronation, thus inhibiting the foot’s natural shock absorption.  Today’s running shoes are so highly engineered to stop the foot’s natural pronation that the foot does not absorb the shock it is designed to absorb.  Instead, the forces are translated up the chain.

I wear orthotics, does this mean that barefoot running is out of the question for me?

No, barefoot running is still a possibility if you do not have severe abnormalities in your foot.  However, if your foot is used to being supported by an orthotic all the time you will definitely need to proceed very slowly.  I would recommend starting with the strengthening exercises and walking barefoot in the house, then trying short walks around the block barefoot.  It would be a good idea to have a physical therapist look at your feet to make sure that you can attempt this and to give you more specific advice.

By Kirsten G. Transue, PT, OCS