Barefoot running is like skinny-dipping: Something that's already pretty fun becomes exhilarating and memorable when you're more deeply connected to the environment and your body. You can't help feeling the nuances of the water temperature and noticing your skin when sans swimsuit, and running without shoes forces you to pay attention to the world around you -- and listen to your feet.
Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Lifehacker/GMG, photos via Shutterstock
Before I get into my running adventures without joggers, I want to be clear: I'm not anti-shoes, or even anti-shoes-for-running. I've lived or sojourned -- and run -- in very cold places (western Massachusetts) and very hot ones (northern Australia); locales where the land beneath is hazardous (the lava fields of Hawaii's Big Island); and others where I wouldn't dare try my luck with bare feet (Oakland, California seems to have smashed glass everywhere).
That being said, I have run without shoes in more places than I haven't, and with experience I feel more and more comfortable running where I might have been afraid to before. Here's what I have learned.
Barefoot is Awesome: A History
I was raised by my grandmother, who grew up in Manhattan, but spent summers barefoot in the Adirondacks. To her, naked feet meant freedom. She gardened, cooked, stacked wood and even shovelled snow while shoeless. We would compete to see who could stay outside the longest in the winter with bare feet -- she always won. At school or in town, I sported '80s-kid footwear, from super-white Reeboks to jelly sandals, but they came off at home, as my grandma's did.
Living and working in NYC in my 20s, I rarely went barefoot. But I stumbled across its particular joys again in my early 30s, on my way to a date. Picture one of those August downpours where the sky just opens up and people huddle beneath overhangs. It was a hot night, and I was sliding around dangerously on stacked espadrilles. Normally a fast walker, even in heels, I was toddling slowly through the rain. I yanked the shoes off in a "screw it" moment, and settled my feet to the warm concrete as the cool rain fell on the tops of my toes. I walked, gingerly, then as the rain picked up again, I felt compelled to run. So I did. It felt so free, to dash through the temporarily empty streets in bare feet. I showed up at the bar drenched and glowing, and I'm sure my suitor found me strange. I tried going barefoot again while trail running in the woods of Connecticut. And I haven't stopped since.
Why run on a boring old road when you could run in the bush? There's beautiful scenery, birds, and that triumphant post-run feeling of knowing you survived more challenging conditions. Trail running is a little different than running on roads, but with a bit of preparation, it can be a great change-up.
Why Run Barefoot?
Over the last decade, barefoot running has grown in popularity, with many serious runners trying it out to deal with tendonitis or other injuries -- or to improve their strength or efficiency. Some convert to all-barefoot all the time, but plenty of others just use it as part of their overall training.
Exactly how beneficial barefoot running is for your feet and body is up for debate. Some studies have found that running in minimal or no shoes helps with chronic injuries, but critics of those studies say that they aren't large enough or haven't been going on long enough to be sure. A recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reports that the implications of barefoot running are still in its infancy, and "long-term prospective studies have yet to be conducted and the link between barefoot running and injury or performance remains tenuous and speculative".
On one side are the people who think joggers cushion feet where they need it and help people run faster and longer. On the other are those who think that shoes, and especially joggers, are actually detrimental to musculoskeletal health. "Foot muscles can atrophy if you're in shoes all day long," Stephen Pribut, a podiatrist in Washington, DC, told Runner's World. Barefoot running advocates say joggers cause injury since humans evolved to run even long distances over varied terrains (including hard, flat tundra) without shoes or with just a thin-soled moccasin.
When most of us try running in bare feet or "barefoot running" joggers, we automatically start running on the front of your foot. This forefront strike is the natural gait for most people, but we un-learn it from wearing shoes, as studies have found that compare kids who wear shoes with those who don't.
Research is ongoing about what causes running injuries, but studies have found that landing on the back of the foot generates a high-frequency force that moves up the body and through the bones, potentially causing injury. Landing on the front of the foot causes lower-frequency forces to move up into muscles, which can diffuse the strike. It actually feels awkward to run with a heel-strike motion when you're barefoot.
What else changes? You probably don't need to worry about altering your stride or gait: An April 2017 study in the International Journal of Exercise Science found that both experienced and inexperienced runners found the most efficient stride for them.
Like anything new, ease into barefoot running. Perhaps begin with some "barefoot running" joggers (I love my Vivo Ultras). They will give you a feel for how different it feels when there isn't a bunch of padding between you and the ground.
Once you have the feel of it, or if you are already comfortable being barefoot on the beach or elsewhere, you can try running on grass, a large parking lot, or the packed sand next to the ocean, depending on what's handy. I'd suggest about 20 minutes a couple of times a week to get your feet used to being naked -- and so you have time to build up your calluses.
Or you can try barefoot running the last quarter or third of your regular run, carrying your joggers in hand. When you feel confident, try a woodsy path or street; you might want to carry your joggers or a pair of thongs just in case. Practising the same route a few times can help familiarise you and your feet to the same locale, and it will get easier as you acclimate to running without shoes.
A Whole New (Sensory) World
The very best part about running barefoot isn't about increasing strength or gaining more balance or agility (though you will certainly use micro-muscles you didn't know you had -- and feel it the next day). It's about how much more awareness you'll have about your body and the world around you.
You might notice how your legs and feet start to automatically react to small variances in terrain, or be surprised by how nimble you have to be to avoid small obstacles. Listen to your body and tune in: Where does it feel good to land on your foot when you are running? How do your ankles feel? What are your toes doing? (In joggers, toes have little chance to help you balance and negotiate terrain, and it will take some time for them to relearn their job.)
You will notice too, how the ground feels under your feet. Especially if you choose a path in a natural area, the variation in temperature and dampness is remarkable. You will come to anticipate cool mud smooshing between your toes at a shady spot in the trail, learn how to keep from hitting your soft instep on even the smallest stone in the street, and figure out how to use a tree root to gain purchase with your big toe as you climb a hill. I've found that I use my legs and feet more creatively when barefoot; I hop more, change my stride length up quite often, and find my calves and butt doing more work as I move through my run -- I'm always focused on finding just the right place for my foot to land.
Calluses Are Your Friend
The dozen or so times I have gotten a pedicure, the woman caring for my feet always attempts to scrape my soles. I can't stand it because I'm inordinately ticklish there, but also because over the years, I have realised that those callouses are incredibly valuable.
From walking barefoot, and running sans shoes sometimes, I now have a thin-but-tough covering over most of the ball of my foot and my heel. This gives me natural foot protection -- made by my very own body! Which is kind of amazing if you think about it. (You can still give your feet a good scrub; just don't shave off the callouses.)
Calluses, those areas of crusty thickened skin on your hands and feet, are part armour and part liability. Gymnasts obsess about shaving them down; runners worry about keeping them built up. With some smart management, it's possible to have happy, tough skin that doesn't give you problems.
Barefoot running gets easier over time, but it's absorbing, and takes concentration. You absolutely must pay attention to where you put your feet. Running with joggers on feels kind of "numb" to me after running barefoot -- it just isn't as interesting. But when I'm not in the mood and want to veg out while I run, I wear minimal running shoes.
Yes, you are more likely to cut your foot running barefoot than you are if you have some kind of shoe on. Similarly, if you ride a bike wearing only a swimsuit and crash, you're more likely to suffer serious scrapes than if you're wearing even a light layer of cotton pants and shirt -- but riding a bike in a swimsuit feels great, and we all weigh our risks. I've never cut my foot and never been stung or bitten by an insect while barefoot running.
Running without jogers is not for everyone, and that's OK. If it strikes you as too uncomfortable, you can get pretty close with minimalist joggers. But I find true barefoot running connects me to my body, the world around me, and my past in a way that keeps me grounded and mindful.