If you’ve found your way here, then you’ve probably heard a little bit about running barefoot and are intrigued enough to want to know more. Like most people, you probably have all sorts of questions running through your head:
- Won’t I step on glass?
- Will me feet get ugly?
- Do I have to grow a beard?
- What will my girlfriend/boyfriend think?
- Is it OK to wear shoes when I’m running barefoot?
- Can I ever wear shoes again?
Every barefooter before you has had similar questions and have found a variety of answers (especially to that beard one). In this post we’re going to talk about some of the risks and rewards of running barefoot, what you need to do to get ready to take your first steps, and a few other tips and tricks to get you started off right.
So, to begin, let’s start by dispelling a myth.
Now, you may have heard that running barefoot will cure your plantar fasciitis, put an end to injuries forever, grow hair on your chest, bring about world peace, etc. I’m afraid that as much as I would like all this to be true, if you’re looking for a magic cure-all, then you may be disappointed. Like any physical, outdoor activity, there is a chance you will aggravate an existing injury or even obtain a new one. Transitioning to barefoot (or minimal shoes) is notoriously risky and if done incorrectly can cause serious damage (see pretty much every article on this site for tips on how to minimise this).
However, though running barefoot isn’t a 100% cure for running injuries, it does offer a number of very worthwhile benefits.
To begin with, it’s FUN! Really, really fun! I honestly think this is the top reason why so many runners find their way into running barefoot. It’s hard to overstate the enjoyment of throwing off your shoes and running down a beach, or sloshing your way along a muddy trail.
What barefoot running offers is a change from the increasingly common mentality of needing to experience pain and discomfort for the sake of exercise. One thing that barefooters seem to have in common is the uncanny ability to smile throughout their runs. It sounds cheesy as hell, but it really does give you a spring in your step, and can bring back the enjoyment of running to those who have lost it.
Apart from sheer pleasure, there are many physical benefits to running unshod as well. Once you learn how to do it correctly and safely, it is a great way to stretch and strengthen your feet. Our poor feet spend a lot of time in shoes that, frankly, aren’t fit for feet. The damage caused by office shoes in particular, especially high-heels (or so I hear) is appalling.
By running au naturelle every now and then, it’s possibly to strengthen the arches of your feet and even reverse some of the damage caused by shoes. Your feet will start to change, and many barefooters, myself included, have experienced widening feet as their toes spread apart. Once you get to this point, the idea of cramming your piggies back into a pair of hush puppies is abhorrent.
What I’ve found really surprising about learning to run barefoot however, has little to do with feet at all. As you scan the ground in front of you for broken glass, thorns, dog poo, etc, something strange happens to your brain. You start to notice more, be aware of your surrounding more, and even begin to feel more ‘present’. It’s something akin to mindfulness meditation, and can have a major affect on you, even when you’re not running. Barefoot running is meditating without needing to meditate, and even more than shod running, can snap you out of a funk like you would not believe.
Now there is one concern that new barefooters have that can’t be dismissed. It’s the totally justified fear of stepping on something sharp. The fact is that when you leave the protection of a pair of shoes behind, you open your soles to the possibility of damage. At first this seems like a really dumb idea, but in practice, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
Think of it like parenting – you can wrap your kids up in cotton wool to protect them from ever getting hurt, or you can let them roam free and collect the bruises and scrapes that will be inevitable. By protecting the child, they never learn how to deal with bumps and bruises, so when they eventually grow up and get their first scrape, the world seems to be coming to an end. For the free-roaming kid, they’re likely to get bumped around a little bit initially, but they learn from the experience and develop the skills and resilience to manage or avoid similar situations in the future.
The same goes with feet. Sure, you might get the odd scratch or bruise, but this will make you more aware of your surroundings and more careful about how you run. It forces you to treat your body and environment with respect which, in the long term, pays off huge dividends. And don’t forget, your feet evolved to do this, so they’re actually very well equipped to deal with outdoor terrain.
Initially, when the shoes first come off, your feet will likely be soft and weak. You’re going to feel every little stone and stick, and it’s probably going to be a little bit uncomfortable and even painful. But by slowly exposing your feet to more and more time in direct contact with the ground, your brain will learn how to filter out the unimportant signals and focus in on what’s important.
Many people think that by running barefoot all the time, you just end up with big, nasty callouses, and that this toughening of the skin is what makes it easier for long term barefooters to cope with the sensations. In fact, after seven years of barefoot running, I have got very little callousing on my feet, and in fact I think it’s actually less than when I always wore shoes. Despite this, I can run on gravel now that would have stopped me in my tracks in the early days.
Barefoot running is not for everyone, and that’s fine, but it can be a very rewarding way to spice up your running, improve your foot health, and allow you to feel more attuned to your surroundings. You don’t have to do it for every run, and you don’t have to run marathons unshod either. All you need to do is take off your shoes, slow down, and enjoy the experience.
Written by Barefoot Dawsy
Barefoot running is not for everyone and has associated risks that may not be suitable to your individual situation. Please see out disclaimer regarding information shared on this site.