With all the debate out there on whether barefoot running is actually beneficial, we decided to dig into the hard science. Research evidence shows that running shoeless does come with a number of benefits, from injury recovery to boosts in emotion.
The problem with running barefoot, especially to those who have never done it before, is that running without shoes can be hazardous to your feet due to unknown and potentially dangerous substances on the ground, such as broken glass and pointed rocks.
To prevent these issues while still enjoying the benefits of shoeless running, barefoot shoes were created. These shoes were meant to simulate the feeling of being or running barefoot without the high possibility of getting hurt.
Additionally, utilizing these shoes can aid in the transition from running with heavy athletic shoes to running without any shoes at all.
The most improvements found when using barefoot running shoes were in the feet themselves, though there were more improvements elsewhere, including the lungs, mind, blood, and nervous systems.
The main cause of these improvements were actually what barefoot running shoes lack, which are built-up or cushioned heels, flexible soles, and arch support (13). This allows your feet to perform naturally as they run, which prevents injuries regular running shoes can cause and can provide perks that other shoes simply do not.
1. Barefoot Running Promotes Recovery
Regular shoes may cause you to land on your heel, which is unnatural, may impair balance, and makes you at risk of getting ankle strains, among other leg and foot injuries (1). In fact, according to Harvard scientist, Dr. Daniel Lieberman, running in cushioned shoes is like “someone is hitting your heel with a hammer” (5).
On the other hand, barefoot running or running with barefoot shoes have been recommended by coaches and physical therapists to treat these injuries and rehabilitating professional athletes (3).
This is due to the fact that barefoot running shoes allow runners to land on their forefoot or midfoot, which can avoid further stress to injuries such as fractures and plantar fasciitis (13). This encourages runners to press on in their recovery while avoiding further harm to affected areas.
Bottom Line: Unlike regular running shoes, barefoot shoes gives runners the opportunity to land on their forefoot or midfoot. This produces less injuries and offers athletes the chance to recover from other intense pains without causing any more damage.
2. Running Economy is Improved with Regular Use of Barefoot Running Shoes
Running economy (RE) is the energy required for a specific velocity of running, which is determined by measuring oxygen consumption, or VO2 max, and the respiratory exchange ratio (2). Essentially, this means how far a person can run as they use a certain amount of energy (22).
Those who have good RE use less energy and less oxygen than those with poor RE. To increase your RE, you must reduce the amount of energy you use in braking and use your oxygen consumption better. The latter can be done by increasing the stiffness in the muscles.
Both of these can be caused with the use of barefoot running shoes, since you will be landing on your midfoot more often, the amount of times will be reduced. This will produce more steps, which can enhance the storage and recovery of elastic energy in the ankle extensors, increasing muscle stiffness.
Bottom Line: Your running economy can increase by running in barefoot shoes because the shoes reduce braking times and increase muscle stiffness, both of which contribute to high running economy levels.
3. Oxygen Consumption, or VO2 max, is Heightened due to the Specific Motions that Simulated Barefoot Running Requires
It has been proven that those who run in barefoot running shoes can increase their oxygen consumption or VO2 max by 2.0%, the highest difference being 5.7% when running on natural surfaces (1).
A higher level oxygen consumption, or VO2 max, is ideal as VO2 max is the numerical measurement of your body’s ability to consume oxygen (20). Having healthy levels of VO2 max allows you to breath deeply as it is synchronized with your motion (8).
It also means that your body can take the oxygen it consumes and directs it to your muscles, which enables you to run faster depending on your effort. However, just because you have the highest VO2, does not mean that you will run the fastest.
Bottom Line: When you run in barefoot running shoes, your oxygen consumption or VO2 max increases and you will be able to consume more oxygen, which will go to your muscles and allow you to run faster.
4. Barefoot Running Shoes Strengthens Muscles, Tendons, and Ligaments of the Foot
Since the heel lift in barefoot running shoes is removed, the possibility of calf strains or Achilles tendinitis is reduced (1). Achilles tendinitis is an injury of the Achilles tendon, which connects the calf muscle to the heel bone (18). Heel pains and tenderness are the main symptoms of this condition.
Minimalist shoe enthusiasts say that running in barefoot shoes increases the development and strength in intrinsic muscles, or muscles within the feet (6). These muscles provide foot support, particularly in the arches (13, 19).
By wearing regular shoes, your feet will fail to grow to their proper size and shape. They can also cause tendons and ligaments to shorten, the muscles to weaken, and the risk of injuries to these areas increases.
Bottom Line: Due to the fitting of barefoot running shoes, you are less likely to develop calf strains or Achilles tendinitis while exercising in them. You can also develop and strengthen intrinsic muscles while running in them, which improve the arches in your feet.
5. By Running with Barefoot Running Shoes, You Can Develop a More Natural Pace or Gait
Those who run with regular shoes generally produce heavier strides, which feels like more work and discourages you from running more and gives you the feeling that you are not making any progress (4).
Meanwhile, those who run barefoot or in barefoot running shoes develop shorter, but quicker strides (3). This is because they tend to land on the midfoot area, which makes it easier to push off and keep going. Their strides then become smooth and fluid (1).
Running in such an instinctual manner can also lead your body to return to a more natural state, that is, a more flexible and comfortable posture (5).
Having a good posture is ideal because it means that everything in your body, including the muscles and your bones, are properly aligned (24). Good posture also play an important role in the functioning of the nervous system.
Bottom Line: Those who run in barefoot shoes develop shorter and quicker strides, which forms better posture. When you have good posture, your body becomes more aligned and the functioning of your nervous system is more efficient.
6. Running with Barefoot Shoes Can Improve Your Balance and Proprioception
While running barefoot or simulating running barefoot, you activate the muscles in the feet, ankles, legs, and hips that are responsible for balance and coordination (1).
Likewise, running with barefoot shoes helps these users to stay grounded and connected with the environment, which improves their proprioception. This means that they are more aware of their position and body movements, affecting their balance in a positive manner (3).
They are also able to flex the muscles in their feet until they become a more steady base for their body as they continue to move.
Bottom Line: Running in barefoot shoes activates muscles responsible for balance and coordination. The activity can also allow you to be more aware of your surrounding as your somewhat bare feet continually meet closer contact with the earth, which improve proprioception and creates a supportive base for your body.
7. You Feel More Encouraged to Run Outside, which is Better for Your Health then Running Inside
When running outside in barefoot shoes, you will be able to feel the ground and the air better (5). This adds a new dimension to the running experience, which can encourage you to run again in the future.
Walking barefoot or in barefoot shoes on natural surfaces such as soil, grass, and sand is called earthing or grounding (8). It is the understanding that earth has its own natural charge and people seem to do better when they are in direct contact with it.
Aside from this, barefoot running shoes encourage you to be outside which can be far healthier than running at the gym as those who run outside exert more energy than those on treadmills.
Being outside can give you Vitamin D, which helps maintain a healthy immune system. It also improves eyesight since you are away from computer screens and artificial light, both of which can result in nearsightedness.
In addition, the outdoors can produce cleaner air as indoor air-pollutant are 25-62% greater and can pose health risks such as heart disease, lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and asthmatic attacks.
Bottom Line: One of the purposes of obtaining barefoot running shoes is to run outside without being harmed by the elements. Being outside is beneficial to your health as it is natural, gives you Vitamin D, improves eyesight, has clearer air, and is more fun and efficient than exercising indoors.
8. Barefoot Running Shoes Allow You to be Connected with Yourself and the Earth or Natural Surfaces, which Can Improve Sleep
Running in barefoot shoes can improve your sleep because it gets you closer to nature or environmental elements which have been found to calm the body. In fact, one study discovered that those who used grounded carbon fiber mattresses reported that they slept better (8).
Our sleep patterns are also regulated by an internal body clock or circadian rhythm which is connected to the sun’s schedule. Staying inside or being away from natural light can disrupt sleep patterns. Likewise, those who work the night shift or travel often may have trouble sleeping since they are generally awake when their body knows they should not be (15).
To adjust sleep patterns, it is recommended to wake up early in the morning, when the sun it out, and perform a few exercises outside, preferably with barefoot running shoes since they allow you to become more connected with the environment.
Bottom Line: By encouraging you to go outside in the sunlight or daytime and get connected with environmental elements, barefoot running shoes can improve sleeping patterns.
9. Running in Barefoot Shoes Can Improve Short-term or Working Memory
Working memory is the ability to recall information within a short period of time (17). You can use your working memory to determine the solution to any numerical equation, regardless of difficulty, in your head.
In a study, two groups, one running barefoot and the other with regular running shoes, had their working memory tested before and after a run. After the run, those who ran barefoot increased their working memory by 16% while those who wore shoes showed no significant change.
Bottom Line: It has been proven that running barefoot or running in shoes that simulate being barefoot can improve short-term or working memory by at least 16%.
10. Barefoot running shoes help prevent Plantar Pain or Plantar Fasciitis
The plantar tendon is along the bottom of your foot and keeps the arch of the foot from flattening completely when you land on it. It provides as your natural source of cushioning and shock absorption whenever you are on your feet (12).
Plantar fasciitis is an inflammation of the plantar fascia, which is a fibrous membrane that attaches the base of your toes with the front of your heel. This inflammation can be the result of a pull on the plantar tendon. Actions that involves movement on your toes, including wearing high heels, can pull this tendon and cause plantar fasciitis.
Over-striding can also lead to plantar fasciitis because when you do so, you generally land on or strike your heels. When you do this, your heels will be carrying 6 times your bodyweight, which it is not supposed to do.
When you get plantar fasciitis, your heels begin to feel thick and overtime, it will be like needles are pricking you in this area.
To prevent this, it is best to land on the midfoot rather than the heel and to not push yourself forward or overstride. When you are running in barefoot shoes, you will be utilizing the midfoot more and stride more moderately. It can also provide as a healing process if you already have plantar fasciitis since it keeps the affected areas supple.
Getting blisters can also be avoided while running barefoot or in barefoot running shoes (10). This is because you are not sliding your feet when you are running in this fashion, you are picking them up, which does not cause many blisters (11). The bare soles are also tough enough to withstand the roughness of the ground, so getting blisters should be a problem regardless.
Meanwhile, wearing regular shoes can produce or reopen recovering blisters, which may cause pain and bleeding.
Bottom Line: Utilizing barefoot running shoes can prevent plantar fasciitis as you begin to use the midfoot to land while running as opposed to the heel, which can be more damaging. Meanwhile the motions you use while running with barefoot shoes can produce less blisters then if you used regular running shoes.
11. Using Barefoot Running Shoes Can Boost Blood Circulation
In an investigation published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, it was found that running barefoot or in barefoot running shoes increases the surface charge of red blood cells (8). With this, the cells began to clump less, decreasing blood viscosity, which reduces the risk of contracting heart disease.
Walking in shoes that simulate being barefoot can improve blood oxygenation, circulation, and immune responses as well as removes toxins.
The main reason why barefoot running shoes are capable of doing this is because they wake up otherwise dormant muscles in the feet and legs, boosting circulation in these areas as they do (21). Increasing blood flow reduces the likelihood of pains and varicose veins and allows the feet and legs to get warmer during cold seasons.
Bottom Line: Activity performed using barefoot running shoes can improve blood flow due to the awakening of muscles previously unused with other shoes. This can reduce the risk of heart disease and varicose veins and can allow the body to get warmer during winter.
12. Earthing, or Running on Natural Surfaces, has a Positive Effect on the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) has two states: the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for resting and digesting food, and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is in charge of fight or flight reactions (16).
Earthing is the practice of gathering free electrons from the earth and allowing the body to utilize it for natural health purposes (23). The benefits that can arise from this can range from improved sleep to reducing pain.
A study was performed in 2006 that found stressed or sympathetically “charged” participants who ran barefoot lessened their muscle tension, particularly in the trapezius area which holds stress in the body.
In this case, the activity of running barefoot eased the muscles. The nervous system becomes aware of this and switches to a parasympathetic state, which allows you to feel relaxed and safe.
Bottom Line: Earthing, or running barefoot or in barefoot shoes on natural surfaces, can ease tense muscles, which will allow the body to transition into a more relaxed state, also called the parasympathetic state. This will relieve stress and gives the body a sense of peace.
13. Exercising in Barefoot Running Shoes Can Improve Overall Health
Research found that grounding can allow the skin to heat up, which can protect you against unfavorable weather. It can also moderate heart rate, improve glucose regulation, reduce stress, and boost immunity (8).
It has been recommended to take frequent walks in nature while in barefoot running shoes. By doing this at least 30 minutes a day, you can reduce cancer risk, improve cardiovascular health, maintain moderate weight, and prevent diabetes.
Bottom Line: Grounding, or running barefoot or in barefoot running shoes, can boost overall health as the activity and constant interaction with the earth improves anything from regulating heart rate to preventing the development of cancer.
14. Transitioning to Barefoot Running Shoes Can Reintroduce You to a More Natural State and Can Increase Your Chances of Survival
A lot of things that we do today, such as eating meat and cooking meals, we do not have to do anymore. We have the energy and the ability to live without meat and others can make meals for us. These tasks are now done out of habit, not of necessity, and wearing shoes are one of these tasks (5).
By getting used to barefoot shoes, you learn to adjust to running or walking barefoot in general. It may not mean much in current society, but if you were ever in the position to be unable to use shoes, you will be able to adapt and thrive easier and faster.
Bottom Line: Wearing shoes as protection may not be necessary anymore in today’s well-protected environment. However, if you were to transition into going barefoot, you may experience unforeseen pain in muscles you have rarely used before. Wearing barefoot running shoes can help you adjust to running barefoot.
15. Using Barefoot Running Shoes More Often Gives You the Sense of Freedom, Healing, and Other Positive Emotions
Barefoot running shoes does not restrict your feet as other shoes do. While using them as you run, you feel lighter, which not only encourages you to exercise, but also provides as a great way to relieve inner tension (5).
Using barefoot running shoes can bring forth fun and the feeling of being a kid, which promotes positivity, feelings of self-worth, and happiness.
Such activity with these shoes can pose as a form of mental healing as it removes stress, replacing it with a stronger sense of wellbeing (8).
Bottom Line: Running with barefoot running shoes can allow you to feel lighter, which increases your eagerness to run in the future, relieves stress, and promotes positive emotions and high self-esteem.
Tips for Beginners
With all the benefits of barefoot running shoes, there are still some things a runner should know before switching shoes. If done incorrectly, users may suffer pain from using them too quickly, may be paying more than they should for a certain pair, or performing the wrong activity which may not produce their desired results. See the following tips for the best practices for this footwear.
1. Which Barefoot Running Shoes are Recommended?
The more popular of the barefoot running shoes are the Vibram Fivefingers, the most preferred of the brand is the KSOs (9).
These types of running shoes provide all the benefits of running barefoot and the protection that shoes were originally designed for. The cushioning from running shoes is removed, which allows the muscles in your feet to strengthen.
You will also be able to feel the ground more, which is the main purpose of barefoot running. However, your feet are less likely to be hurt by ground debris such as glass and sharp pebbles.
The KSOs is the best model for some due to its Velcro straps, which helps keep this ground debris out and can be used on natural surfaces that may be hurtful to feet without shoes. Such settings can include trails and beaches.
Bottom Line: The best barefoot running shoes to get are the Vibram Fivefingers KSOs. This brand features Velcro straps that keep debris out and have flexible yet sturdy soles that are ideal for natural grounds such as dirt, grass, and sand. These shoes have no cushioning, which allows lower muscles to strengthen while running.
2. Shop Around for Those Reasonable Prices
For some, the purpose of transitioning to barefoot shoes is to attempt minimalism, or to do a lot with very little. However, if your goal is to take this approach, then purchasing a $125 shoe may not be the right way to start since it may be the exact same price as regular running shoes (9).
If you look around, there is a good chance that you could find this exact same pair at $100 or less.
You, of course, can choose to go straight to running barefoot, which requires no money at all. However, transitioning so quickly from regular running shoes to running without shoes, can be more painful or even damaging to your muscles. Therefore, it may be best to purchase a barefoot running shoe of some kind.
Bottom Line: If your reasoning for transitioning to barefoot running shoes is to convert to minimalism, it may be wise to look around for barefoot shoes at reasonable prices. Even if you aren’t a minimalist, why pay for more, when you can pay for less?
3. How to Put Barefoot Running Shoes On
It has been said that putting on barefoot running shoes is like putting on gloves, for your feet (9).
If you try, you’ll notice that is it much harder to control the movement of your toes than controlling the movement of your fingers, but this can improve with practice.
First, slide your feet partly in until your toes begin entering the Vibram “fingers”, or shoe holes in which the toes go into. Take a moment to make sure that each toe is lining up with the right “finger”, then slot the spaces between your toes with the spaces between each “finger”.
Then, pull from the heel of your shoes so that your heel easily slips into the end of your shoes. Your toes should slide into their “fingers” as well. When this happens, wiggle your toes until they are comfortably fitted into each “finger”. Secure on the Velcro strap, and you are all set.
After you have done this process a few times, it can take you less than 20 seconds to put on each shoe.
Bottom Line: To put on your barefoot running shoes, slide your feet in, make sure each toe is in the right place in regards to the “fingers” of the shoe, slip your heel inside and wiggle your toes in each “finger”. Once the shoe is properly fitted on your foot, secure the Velcro strap.
4. Gradually Transition into Using Barefoot Running Shoes Regularly
While running barefoot or with barefoot shoes can be beneficial on many levels, just because you have the option to run in barefoot shoes, doesn’t mean that you have to use them all the time (3). That is, while professional athletes use them to recover from injuries, they do not use them while they are training or during a game.
You must choose the right manner in which to use your barefoot running shoes, especially if it is your first time using them. The best way is to ease into the use of them.
Try walking indoors first, then walk outdoors. Proceed to run indoors, then run outdoors. Once running outdoors, transition from running on soft surfaces to harder ones. Doing this will allow your body’s natural shock mechanisms to build up, which will allow you run better with these shoes or barefoot in the future.
It is recommended that when switching running shoes, that you do not add more than 10% of exercise per week to your regular running routine.
For instance, during the first four weeks of using barefoot shoes, walk slowly for 30 minutes, 2 to 3 times per week. In the next 2 weeks, run briefly on a soft surface 2 to 3 times per week. You can do this exercise as a warm-up or cool down for your regular workouts.
After this time, you may then increase your barefoot running exercises on soft surfaces by 10% 2 to 3 times per week. Proceed to do this until you are able to perform 50% of your normal workouts in barefoot shoes.
Bottom Line: Though running with barefoot shoes can be beneficial to your health, you do not have to use them all the time. In fact, for those who have not used barefoot running shoes, it is best if you ease into the use of them by gradually increasing the duration and intensity of your workouts over a matter of weeks.
5. Stretch Lower Limbs to Avoid Overworking Muscles
When running barefoot or in barefoot running shoes, you will begin to use muscles that you are not accustomed to using. To remedy this, try stretching the lower limb areas using the the plyometrics method (3).
Plyometrics is based on the idea that a muscular contraction can strengthen if immediately following a similar contraction of this same muscle (14). This could mean hopping, jumping, and bounding before performing grander exercises.
The aim of these practices is not how high you can jump or how far you can go, but to give your muscles some experience with these stresses before really acting them out.
Other techniques include massaging your calf muscles and arches frequently (13). This will break down scar tissue, which will enable these areas to heal and get stronger.
If you notice that you are feeling a lot of pain in your feet, it may because you are landing on the front of your feet too much or because your feet are too rigid when you run. Try landing on your midfoot instead and flex your foot a little more. If the pain still continues, stop the exercise all together and wait until the affected areas are healed before attempting the exercise again.
Bottom Line: Stretch your lower muscles both before and after running in barefoot shoes. Performing smaller exercises such as hopping, jumping, and bounding can allow these muscles to adjust to the strain of running in the shoes. Massaging these same areas can also reduce pain. If pain worsens, stop the exercise.
6. How to Prevent Unwanted Odors
Barefoot running shoes can begin to smell within a couple of months or even after a few weeks depending on how much you have used them and the type of exercises you did while wearing them (9).
To be rid of the smell, Vibram suggests sticking them in the washer with a small amount of your everyday laundry soap. Once they are done washing, let them air dry. Naturally, they dry very quickly.
For the best results, it is recommended that you carry out this process every two weeks.
Bottom Line: To eliminate odor from your barefoot running shoes, wash them as you would with your clothing, then let them air dry. Do this every two weeks for the best results.
7. Protect Yourself from the Elements
Though wearing barefoot running shoes such as Vibram Fivefingers can protect you from glass, nails, rocks, and thorns, not to mention ice and snow, they may not be completely protective all the time (1, 7).
The best way to protect yourself from the elements is to pick the area in which to exercise in. Parks with clean sidewalks or paths as well as stadiums or indoor track fields where the ground is rubbery and safe from foreign objects are most suited for these types of shoes (5).
Time should also be considered when planning runs. During the summertime, you may not want to run on the asphalt when the sun is out and during the winter, you should avoid running when you know there will be chance of ice.
It may be wise to bring a small first aid kit, just in case of an emergency.
Bottom Line: To protect yourself from the elements while wearing your barefoot running shoes, it is recommended to pick the safest area to run on and the best time to run during. Parks, stadiums, or track fields are suitable areas, while asphalt during summer days and icy sidewalks during winter are not.
8. Try Proper Forefoot and Midfoot Strike Forms for Best Results
It is said that there is no perfect running form, that when running barefoot, each body runs the way it feels most natural (13).
However, when running regardless of the types of shoes that you are wearing, landing on your ankles can be damaging to your feet. It just so happens that this landing is more common when you are wearing regular shoes. While running barefoot or in barefoot running shoes, you tend to land on your forefoot or midfoot, which are much better for your feet.
When running with barefoot shoes, it is best to act a little springy when landing on your feet and pushing forward. Once your forefoot or midfoot lands, allow your heel to drop down gently. The landing should be soft as if you had just jumped from a short distance. Keep your feet horizontal to avoid stress on your calves.
Do not overstride or stretch your leg or foot too far away from your hips. This could be damaging to your calf muscles, Achilles tendon, and the arch of your foot.
You may have to run barefoot for a few second to determine whether you are running properly with the barefoot running shoes. Doing this will allow you to understand how you can run more naturally.
Bottom Line: Try landing on your forefoot or midfoot when running with barefoot shoes. Run in a natural fashion and your body will automatically adjust to landing on these areas. Avoid overdoing these exercises. Do not land on your ankle or overstride as they cause the most damage to your foot muscles.
It has been determined by a number of studies, professionals, and users that running in barefoot shoes is by far healthier than running on any other running shoes. The main reason for this is the fitting of the shoe which acts as a thicker protection to your feet without removing your ability to move around naturally.
By allowing this, you will be able to reduce your chances at running injuries, produce stronger muscles, and boost overall physical, mental, and emotional health as the shoes connect you with your outside environment and gives you the sense of freedom.