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Running Barefoot: Is It for You?

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Kick off the shoes and run the way experts say you were born to: barefoot.

Watch any major marathon these days, and you’ll likely see a few runners without shoes. You’ll spot dozens more wearing minimalist shoes such as Vibram FiveFingers, which look like gloves made for feet. They’re attempting to channel an ancient piece of wisdom chronicled in Christopher McDougall’s 2009 Born to Run, which profiles the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who often run more than 100 miles at a time wearing lightweight sandals, yet who manage to avoid the injuries that plague many U.S. runners. The book also follows McDougall’s personal quest to transcend running injuries with the help of Jackson Hole, Wyo.-based Eric Orton, one of many running coaches to advocate barefoot running as a form-improving training tool.

Why Lose the Shoes?

Barefoot-running proponents believe that thickly cushioned shoes with beefy arch supports can rob the foot of its natural ability to feel the ground beneath it, encouraging bad form such as heel striking, Orton says, in which the heel hits the ground first. Heel strikers may be more susceptible to injury than runners who land on their forefoot first, he adds, recruiting the ankle, knee and hip and calf muscles as shock absorbers. Running barefoot can help strengthen the ankles and calves and can help runners get the feel of forefoot striking, Orton explains.

Try It—Slowly

Orton encourages athletes to view barefoot running as a supplemental training tool, not a racing strategy or way of life. He also encourages them to incorporate barefoot running gradually. In Florida for Spring Break? Hit the beach and run several “strides,” or intervals of 20 or 30 seconds of fast running. No sand nearby? An open, grassy field will work just as well. “If you start to feel it in your calves, know enough to say, ‘Okay, that’s all I need to do today,’” Orton says.

Other Form-Improvers

Runners can also get the feel of forefoot striking by running in place—“you can’t run in place on your heels,” Orton says. Balancing on one foot—or on one forefoot once that gets easy—has the same effect.

Amy Reinink writes on health and fitness; travel and the outdoors; and real estate and entrepreneurship. Her work has appeared in publications including The Washington Post Magazine, Entrepreneur, Runner’s World, Running Times and Women’s Running.

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