Is Barefoot Running the "Perfect Running Shoe"?

It is estimated that over 75 percent of shod runners are rear-foot strikers (landing heel first). Rear-foot strikers who do not properly transition to forefoot or mid-foot striking bear a greater risk of severe injury. By continuing to land heel first, the shock on the body without the cushioning of running shoes leads to a considerable number of fractures (both stress fractures and full fractures) in the heel area or tibia. Likewise, converting to barefoot running too quickly can lead to a much higher incidence of metatarsal stress fractures and plantar fasciitis.

Additional reasons proffered against barefoot running: cuts, bruises and related infections from debris and thermal injuries (hot or cold running surfaces).

How to Transition Safely to Barefoot Running

There has not yet been enough research to determine conclusively whether barefoot running is the most beneficial or natural way to run. Each runner is a laboratory unto himself. If you think barefoot running may be best for you, here are some tips for making the transition.

Be Patient

The medical professionals I've consulted say the primary cause of injury is lack of appropriate adaption through the transition, or "too much, too soon." The safe transition period may be six months or more before a barefoot runner is able to race or perform long training runs.

Complete Drills

Barefoot running shifts the landing zone to forefoot or mid-foot strike. In order to ease the transition, the runner should complete running drills that focus on shorter strides. The goal of these drills is to get the runner to evolve into the natural forefoot strike associated with barefoot running. Otherwise, the transitioning runner is likely to increase the shock to the body—with a commensurately higher risk of injury—if she continues to rear-foot strike without the protection offered by traditional running shoes.

More: How to Find Your Mid-Foot

Effective drills include running barefoot on sand or grassy surfaces. Indeed, high school and college runners in the 1960s commonly incorporated weekly grass drills to strengthen calves and improve speed.

More: Beach Running Tips and Sand Workouts

Walk Before You Run 

Start by walking for 10 to 15 minutes to allow the feet to adjust. After a few weeks, progress into a barefoot run/walk regimen that includes longer walking intervals than running intervals. Over the course of a few months, increase the running component and reduce the walking component. During this transition, continue alternating barefoot running with shod running, gradually increasing barefoot time, distance and frequency while reducing shod running.

More: How to Start a Run-Walk Program

Increase Strength and Flexibility

Incorporate strength training and stretching, particularly those muscles and tendons most affected by the transition, such as the plantar fascia, Achilles and calves. Improve lower leg strength and balance with exercises such as one-legged stands and one-legged knee bends.

More: Strength Train to Improve Running Economy

Listen to Your Body 

Pay attention to soreness or excess fatigue during a workout, or as long as 48 hours after the workout, because this may be a sign that your body needs more time to adapt.

Making the transition to barefoot running is a lot like learning to run all over again. Take it slow for the best results. And when you do, you may find that you, too, were "born to run" barefoot.

More: 6 Barefoot Running Tips for Beginners

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