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Barefoot Running: Running Techniques

Updated on September 29, 2012
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Barefoot running may seem like a new and wacky fad, but it’s actually a return to our evolutionary roots. Many runners are skeptical of this latest update in 'shoe technology,' but barefoot shoes were the way all running shoes were made as early as the 1970s, before the sneaker got bigger, better, and more harmful.

When I got my first pair of barefoot shoes, I did the classic newbie slip and decided to go out for my typical four mile run, instead of adjusting a mile at a time. My calves were still tender even a week later. The barefoot shoes, by putting the runner on their toes instead of allowing the heel to strike the ground, makes the body work a whole new set of muscles. Runners that have trained in the traditional sneaker essentially have to relearn what we were born to do!

In the book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall explores the question: why have the number of running injuries dramatically increased in recent decades? Why don’t cheetahs or dogs get shin splints or torqued knees? Why are humans seemingly so prone to injury? In fact his research finds that running injuries have only increased since the 1970s when the running shoe started morphing into more than a protective shell for the foot.

The idea is that we were born mechanically with everything we need to run. But when money got involved in athletics, they needed something to sell, telling the running public that we really needed this heel protector, or this arch support. As 'research' and 'shoe technology' improved they could sell supposedly new and improved products. Before the advent of the modern sneaker, running shoes were mere flat foot coverings, yet the incidence of running injuries was vastly lower.

The Body Mechanics of Barefoot and Non-Barefoot Running

Running barefoot, or in barefoot shoes, makes the runner instinctively protect their heel. Instead of a heel-toe landing, the ground strike is entirely on the forefoot. The forefoot strike inflicts a lighter impact on the body. The heel-toe strike furthermore is actually a braking motion. Watch the two videos to see the different foot "strikes" in slow motion.

Heel Strike Running

The Cause of Running Injuries

The heel-toe foot strike jars the body with the increased impact and places immense strain on the foot and connecting tendons, bones, and muscles. Harvard researchers are finding that it is this heel-toe strike style of running - that is encouraged by thick heeled sneakers - that causes so many running injuries.

Forefoot Strike Running

Two Tarahumara men in traditional clothing.
Two Tarahumara men in traditional clothing. | Source

Barefoot Running Body Posture

When I switched over to 'barefoot' shoes, I immediately found that I was faster. The classic padded-heel sneaker, I realized, had allowed me to be a lazier runner, collapsing into the heel strike. Forefoot striking, rather, causes a propulsion of the legs and naturally requires the body to keep better posture. Without the covering of a sneaker, your body readjusts to 'protect' the foot from heavy impact. Thus, I've found that barefoot running requires more core strength and control.

For his book, Christopher MacDougall interviews a man who runs in sandals through the canyons of Mexico for days on end. He receives the advice to run lightly: think “easy, light, smooth, fast.” MacDougall observes the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico, an indigenous population that has escaped modern world take-over by literally running away through the rough Mexican Copper Canyons. This tribe runs ultramarathons for survival, but also for enjoyment - friendly races are a natural part of their culture that everyone takes part in. And they run it all in flimsy thonged sandals.

MacDougall came up with several observations on the mechanics of barefoot running, based on his observations of Tarahumara running technique. If you're a runner adjusting to the barefoot technique, think about doing the following:

  • run with the back perfectly erect, spine elongated and head up.
  • take small, quick strides, keeping your legs underneath you. “If you have a choice between one step or two between rocks, take three.”
  • let your arms swing rib-high.

Watching on TV the Olympic sprinters run in slow motion, I noticed that as their legs propelled forward the feet curved in, so that the foot's outer top edge by their pinky toes would strike first. This side-to-side landing lessens the impact on the foot.

Choosing Barefoot Shoes

Barefoot shoes sound like an oxymoron. And in fact, before Nike started glitzing our shoes with added "technology" to support the arch, pad the heel, etc...all running shoes were what we now call 'barefoot': flat soled and minimally padded.

The five-finger shoes in which each toe is separated may look odd, but they give one the exact experience of running barefoot. If you're not ready to give your toes free range go with one of the many brands of more traditional looking shoes. I have a pair of Vibram Minimus; their slightly stiff sole reminds me of the spikes we wore running Track and Field.

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    • EZ Swim Fitness profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 3 years ago from Southern Wisconsin

      I too could not handle the toes in my running shoes and opted for a pair of the Vibram Minimus - which I LOVE! I did try the shoes with the toes - I ordered three shoes online and kept two, the running shoe with the toes was the loser. I did try, I had them on inside but alas old habits die hard.

      The running is completely different and I found muscles that have not been used for decades. Love my Vibram Minimus running shoes - they are by far my favorite.

      Great hub - thank you very much!

    • Tara McNerney profile image
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      Tara McNerney 4 years ago from Washington, DC

      Wow Cooper Cook, you're hard core! I've only run actually barefoot (with nothing covering my feet) on the beach. I imagine if you want to run completely barefoot it is a good idea to build up calluses bit by bit first. Even the Tarahumara, the Mexican tribe studied in the book Born to Run, wear a flimsy cloth sandal covering around their feet to protect the skin.

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      cooper cook 4 years ago

      I'll admit that I call myself a hippie, well a gronola hippie to be exact and I tried to give barefoot running a try since I've been running most of my entire life. And I don't know if i'm so used to running with running shoes. But after about three miles off running barefoot I got the biggest blood blisters on the bottom of my feet. And I was wondering if that is something that usually happens a lot?

    • Tara McNerney profile image
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      Tara McNerney 5 years ago from Washington, DC

      Haha, shermanblake I feel you! Running on the beach can be so killer, the sand absorbs all of your momentum. I ran barefoot in the forest with my friend the other day and see that I definitely need to work on building up calluses! Or I guess I'll stick to the 'barefoot' shoes.

    • shermanblake profile image

      Blake Sherman 5 years ago from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

      Tried to run barefoot on the beach yesterday. Did about 5% of what I normally accomplish. However, it might still have been worth it.

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 5 years ago from Pasadena CA

      Interesting article, Tara. Sometimes when I'm walking home from downtown Pasadena and I'm tired, I find myself impatient with shoes. I take them off, start running barefoot, and immediately feel better . . . although I do wonder at times what people think of it.