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Barefoot Running: Should You Try It?

By Jodi Helmer
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD

Imagine going running without shoes, and feeling better for it.

San Francisco personal trainer Kate Clemens once did that, 6 miles into an 18-mile race along the Pacific Crest Trail. After feeling a sharp pain in her knee, she took off her shoes and ran barefoot. 

Without shoes, her knee pain disappeared, and she was able to finish the race. "I felt a difference the minute I took my shoes off," she recalls. "When I’m barefoot, my alignment is better and I run more from my core."

Clemens and a growing number of runners are hitting the streets and trails without their sneakers.

Fans of barefoot running believe wearing shoes hinders their natural stride, causing pain and injuries. But it's not for everyone. So is this trend right for you?

Running Barefoot vs. Running in Shoes

The big difference is in how your foot strikes the ground.

Runners who wear shoes tend to strike the ground with the heels first. This gait, called a heel strike, generates a force up to three times the body’s weight, which can lead to injuries such as Achilles tendinitis and stress fractures.

In contrast, barefoot runners land on the balls of their feet, generating less impact when their feet strike the ground.

"We’ve over-supported our feet [in running shoes] to the point that our foot doesn’t have to do what it’s designed to do," says Irene S. Davis, PhD, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and director of the Spaulding National Running Center. "When you support a muscle, it doesn’t have to work as hard. When it doesn’t have to work as hard, it gets weak."

Davis believes your body instinctively knows how to adjust when you shed your shoes or run in "barefoot shoes," extremely lightweight shoes designed to mimic barefoot running. Barefoot runners shorten their strides, reducing the impact on their lower bodies, and automatically flex their knees, hips, and ankles for a softer landing on hard surfaces, Davis says.

Ditching your shoes means the muscles in your calves and feet will have to work harder to accommodate to a different foot strike and shorter stride. It takes time for new barefoot runners to build up those muscles.

But Clemens is on board. She’s become a regular barefoot runner since the day she abandoned her shoes on the trail. "Without shoes, I’m more attuned to how my body moves," she says. "It’s grounding to feel the earth beneath my feet."

Ready to Run Barefoot?

If you have a history of foot problems, check with your doctor before going barefoot. If you decide to ditch your running shoes, there are a few things you should know, Davis says.

Start slow. You’re more likely to get injured if your foot and leg muscles aren’t properly conditioned for running barefoot. So build up to it. Start with walk-jog intervals, walking for 9 minutes, running for 1 minute, and repeat, working up to longer distances. Also, the skin on your feet needs to thicken to get used to barefoot running.

Think twice. Though there is a risk of stepping on glass or pebbles, Davis believes it’s safe to run barefoot on pavement. If you’re nervous about foot-to-asphalt contact, wear barefoot running shoes instead.

Know when to say no. If you have diabetes, or lose any feeling in your feet, you should wear running shoes when you run.

Reviewed on February 25, 2014

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