EXERCISE: Barefoot Runners of the World Unite

Photo by: mikebaird

Barefoot running is getting lots of attention this week.   The cover story for Nature by Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University is on barefoot running.  Meanwhile, All Things Considered on  National Public Radio is airing a piece on barefoot running.  And, this piece in the New York Times, which focuses on the paleo-lifestyle, mentions barefoot running.  The rise to prominence of Erwan Le Corre and his training methods have also brought barefoot running to light in recent months.  The amazing success of the Vibram Fivefingers shoe cannot be forgotten either.  Although, wearing them technically means you are not barefoot.

Personally, I am no fan of shoes and will use any excuse to take mine off.  So, I am happy to see positive publicity promoting the healthful benefits of a barefoot lifestyle.

Photo by: blacktar

My mother, the physical therapist, first exposed me to the need for exercising barefoot.  I would watch as children came to her office for treatment and the very first thing that she would do was remove their shoes (which frequently looked like physical restraints, rather than as aids for mobility).  I learned that there are lots of little muscles that don’t get worked, when your foot and ankle are fully supported by a shoe or boot.  Without walking around or exercising barefoot, these muscles weaken and can’t get strong.  These weak little foot muscles are part of the reason why walking barefoot in the sand can be difficult, if you have not been to the beach for a while.  But, if you live at the beach, getting around barefoot is no problem.

Images by: Berichard

As previously discussed, I am not a fan of distance running, but for those that are, training barefoot modifies your running pattern, so that you avoid harsh heel strikes.  This change may lessen the impact injuries that many distance runners suffer.  If you want to look into barefoot training for distance running, check out Professor Lieberman’s web site: Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear and Barefoot Ken Bob’s extensive collection of information on the topic.

Even 25 years ago, kids on my high school football team were experimenting with barefoot sprint training during the off season.  These same kids would run the 40 yard dash without shoes and, generally, their 40’s were quicker.   We thought that dropping the shoes made their feet lighter.   I would think that in an all out sprint, hard heel strikes are pretty rare, so maybe it was the drop in weight, but, I also believe that they had stronger feet from training without shoes.

I have purposefully run sprints barefoot in the grass in the past and intend to reintroduce this type of training as part of my conditioning work this Spring.  Also, I have been doing lots of squats lately and I do most of them barefoot.  I can say for a fact that doing squats while wearing shoes is substantially easier than doing them barefoot.  I feel like I am cheating, when I have shoes on.

Finally, I am sure that those of you who participate in combat sports are wondering why training barefoot is such a revelation.  Martial arts are generally done barefoot or in very light footwear.  Light shoes or being barefoot may help with quickness and stamina.  But, in sports where footwork is so important, having actual contact with the floor, mat, or canvas makes a huge difference in the amount of information available when trying to gain proper foot placement.  This type of information is lost or muted, when a running shoe cushions your foot.

If you have never exercised barefoot before, scope the resources in this post, then give it a try.  Experiment and pay attention to the new information that is coming to you through the soles of your feet.  I predict that if you stick with it, you will be pleasantly surprised by the gains in athletic performance derived from natural foot placement and improved foot strength.  If you train with Mr. Le Corre, you may never buy athletic shoes again…



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10 responses to “EXERCISE: Barefoot Runners of the World Unite

  1. Very interesting. I am not sure if the streets of the city are conducive to barefoot running. I am always up for trying something new.

    Great article.

    • Thanks Darren. I wonder about running on sidewalks and streets myself. Probably no worse than the trail run in the video. Note the Ny Times article talks about barefoot running in NYC. I will start out in the grass and eventually move to a track. Let me know what you learn from your experiments with this.

  2. If I could be certain that I were say running in just nice sand it would be fine but there could be a sharp seashell or piece of glass on the beach.
    A sharp laceration on the bottom of the foot is a strong deterent for most people.
    On another note, I like the pic of the women running .

    • I think you have hit a concern that many share. The trail in the video has some rough patches, so, as you indicate, there are hazards everywhere. I have to believe that you learn to account for them with better foot placement, raised awareness, and at times a slower pace.

  3. I love the idea of barefoot running, which was ideal for humans for thousands and thousands of years until we started littering the earth with remnants of our products (bottle caps, broken glass, plastic forks, hotwheels). Ouch!

    Oh! Ever stepped on a sweetgum ball? Worst pain ever. http://www.flickr.com/photos/martinlabar/369697569/

    But, having said all that…I used to run sprints in track in highschool…on my toes all the way. It’s much more natural.

    Cool post!

  4. Great post. I’m not much of a runner, but I do enjoy getting my exercise barefoot. As a modern dancer I learned many years ago of the benefit of taking of the shoes and letting your feet do what they were designed to do.

    • stoffainkorea


      Thanks! Your modern dance experience sounds similar to mine with Tae Kwon Do. I also realized on a recent trip that not having to pack gym or running shoes saves space 🙂

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