Ever read Born to Run? Christopher McDougall’s book is often quoted as the instigator of one of the most hotly discussed running topics on the trail: barefoot running. Running barefoot is viewed as more naturalistic and more in tune with how we should run. Thousands of years of evolution put us in a prime position to run long distances, and then we put a load of cushioning underneath our feet and ruined it all; that’s the theory, at least.
Modern, cushioned running shoes are often designed with a drop. This height difference between heel and toe is designed to propel runners forward and keep you in an active running position. But is this taking away from all that natural development that your body has gone through? And can barefoot running be that return to nature that we all crave a little piece of? Well, perhaps. Little did I know it then, but my trail running career began barefoot-style with some minimalist trainers I picked up because they were on sale. I went through the process and still dabble in barefoot trail running occasionally. Here’s what I learned along the way.
Better running posture
By starting trail running in minimalist trail running shoes, — barefoot running style — I believe I set myself up with a better running posture and reduced capacity for heel striking. It’s hard to consistently heel strike while running barefoot without feeling the jarring sensation running up and down your body. As heel striking is associated with running injuries due to the massive shock it puts through your body, this is probably the primary benefit of running barefoot.
Develop stronger feet
But the benefits go deeper than not heel striking. By running with a forefoot strike, you develop stronger feet — arches especially — which act like springs to propel you along the trail while allowing you to stay light and agile on your feet and navigate technical terrain effectively. Barefoot running is also said to develop your balance and proprioception — your body’s ability to sense movement and location of your limbs.
From a technical standpoint, these are all excellent reasons to take up barefoot running. But one reason has stuck with me since I first put on a minimalist pair of shoes, and it resonates every time I choose them for a run. Running barefoot — or in barefoot running shoes — is fun. It’s how you run as a kid. It’s freeing. You’re not burdened by heavy, chunky shoes; you’re just running exactly how you should be running, feeling a connection with the ground beneath your feet, reading the trail through feedback from under your soles. But that feeling and feedback do — sometimes – come at a cost.
Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room; barefoot running can hurt your feet. But barefoot running doesn’t — counterintuitively — mean you have to wear no shoes. Sure, some barefoot runners will do away with shoes completely or wear a thin set of sandals, but then there are barefoot running shoes. These will be zero-drop, with thin, minimalist soles that allow you to feel the trail under your feet. While you’re getting used to the newfound feel, you may plant your foot too hard on a tree root or a rock, and the thin soles leave you open to puncture wounds or sore soles.
Part of the barefoot running technique is to improve your cadence — stride rate, which some watches will measure. As your cadence increases, you become less reliant on each step, allowing you to quickly pull your foot off a sharp rock or gnarled tree root if it feels like it will damage your foot. Be aware that the transition to barefoot running can cause injury if you go too hard, too soon. Calf muscles and Achilles’ tendons are particularly at risk, and it’s not unheard of for newcomers to damage metatarsals — the bones in your feet — by going too hard, too soon.
If you’re unsure where to start with barefoot running, it can be a good idea to contact a podiatrist to check that ditching the cushioning isn’t about to cause you a whole world of discomfort. If you’re sure it’s for you, then there’s one piece of advice I cannot overstress: start slowly; start small. Your first barefoot — or barefoot-style — runs should be short to the point of feeling like you’ve hardly run. Think of it a little like returning from an injury.
If you’ve never run barefoot before, your body will go through a process of adapting its running style, which can, as I mentioned, strain different areas of your body and potentially cause injury. Don’t head out at your usual running pace, no matter how tempting it can be. Start with short runs on stable surfaces before transitioning onto a trail and rougher terrain. As you develop your technique and muscle form, you can run for longer at a time. With each development — trail style and time — slow your run down again and give your body the appropriate time to transition.
You can’t expect to take up a whole new running style just because you put on — or take off — a different pair of trail running shoes. Despite barefoot running being touted as our natural running form, not everyone takes to it naturally, so here are some pointers to help you:
- Shorten your strides and increase your cadence — stride rate. It can take practice to increase cadence without speeding up, so try running on the spot at different cadences.
- Don’t overstride. Your feet should land underneath your hips with each stride, not in front of you. Keep your body upright above your hips.
- Land on the fore or midsole of your foot, somewhere around the ball of your foot — just behind your toes.
- Stay light and run quietly. This doesn’t mean don’t talk, but you’re not in control if you’re slapping your feet on the ground. Light, springy steps will help you remain agile and let you flinch away from sharp spots on the trail.
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