The hottest trend in running right now is barefoot running. The success of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall has created a huge interest in alternatives to modern running shoes. As a coach, a runner who enjoys running barefoot, and a running store employee I have mixed feelings about this latest trend.
Is there a benefit?
As a coach I think there are great benefits to doing supplemental running barefoot. Without the shock absorption of your running shoes, you are forced to land with a mid-foot strike when running barefoot. Running barefoot can help break the habit of heel-striking, which is less economical than mid-foot or forefoot striking.
It can also work to strength muscles in the feet and lower legs that are underworked in more supportive footwear. Working these underutilized muscles can help correct muscle imbalances that could lead to injury. Like any form of supplemental training, the goal here is to make you a stronger runner so that you can train at a higher volume and a higher intensity without getting injured.
I personally enjoy running barefoot as well. Ending an easy run with a few miles barefoot on soft grass -- especially when the weather is nice -- is one of life's simple pleasures. In addition to the other benefits I've mentioned, I feel it helps me unwind from the run and also helps loosen up my legs.
What to be aware of when running barefoot
As a running store employee, I often get customers asking if I think adding barefoot running to their routine would benefit them. My answer is generally yes -- so long as you are smart about it.
Often you hear the argument that barefoot running is more natural. This is undoubtedly true. But, unless you are running on natural surfaces -- grass, soft dirt, etc. -- you may well benefit from the cushioning and shock absorption that running shoes offer.
Also, since most of us have spent our entire lives in structured shoes, we have not developed our foot strength to the point where we could switch to barefoot running over night. People with plantar fasciitis or other foot problems should be particularly careful about switching from traditional shoes. Therefore, you would want to gradually mix barefoot running into your routine over an extended period of time.
Overall there are a number of benefits to running barefoot, assuming you do it gradually and intelligently. If you are curious about it, I would say definitely give it a try and see if it's for you -- remembering that moderation is key.
Are you a barefoot believer? Or do you refuse to run a step without your trusty trainers? Share your story in the comments section below!