Does barefoot running really improve foot health and performance?

29 November 2011 - posted by Formthotics HQ

The issue of barefoot running is one that has gained quite a bit of traction in recent years, particularly since the release of Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. McDougall researches the running techniques of ancient peoples and comes to the conclusion that humans are not naturally born to run in high-tech sports shoes. We wanted to explore if there is more to this story, and does the same principle apply to ‘flat-footed’ urban runners.

We talked to Christchurch based podiatrist Bruce Baxter about his experience with barefoot running, based on his work with elite athletes and Coast to Coast endurance competitors.

Bruce has an interesting perspective on the issue of how we run, and whether we need highly engineered footwear vs running barefoot.

“The reality is that when you put a well cushioned running shoe on someone, they feel confident about striding out when they run, normally putting their heels down first as they run. This can lead to issues with heel strike, attributing to common runner’s injuries.”

“When you remove those shoes, striking the ground heel first is no longer comfortable or natural, so immediately a shift in running style occurs and your natural running form improves,” Bruce says.

Instead of striding out in front of the body, barefoot runners carry their body weight in a more centred fashion, which improves your overall style and the cadence of your running.

Although this improved form can be achieved through running barefoot, where people will naturally run closer to the mid foot, Bruce says it is not necessary to run barefoot to improve your running posture. Bruce believes you can achieve the benefits from barefoot running without the risks associated with removing all protection from your feet.

In addition to shifting the emphasis away from striking heel first, barefoot running also provides greater contact with the ground. Due to this greater biofeedback through the foot to the rest of the body is achieved, which means the foot can easily adapt to uneven surfaces, terrain and angles accordingly.

Bruce says almost the same level of biofeedback can be achieved by using custom fitted orthotics.

“Charlie Baycroft, the creator of Formthotics, believed it was possible to retain most of that biofeedback by creating a customised orthotic that was snugly fitted to the soles of each individual runner.

“Similar to how sand forms around your foot on a beach, providing a high level of sensory information to the rest of your body, formthotics are designed to fit to all surfaces of your sole.”

For runners who would like to gain the benefits of barefoot running, but don’t want to risk injury from running unprotected on city surfaces, Bruce recommends retraining your running form, ideally in conjunction with a podiatrist who can advise you, and gradually transitioning from a fully cushioned, rigid shoe to a lighter shoe with a lighter orthotic.

You may want to invest in a few different types of running shoe, each with different formthotics depending on the type of training you are doing – ie sprint training vs longer distance or different terrain sessions.

If you are considering trying barefoot running, Bruce suggests you consider these points first:

  • Do you have enough foot strength – are your feet strong enough to start running without support?
  • How stable are your feet and ankles? Again, are they stable enough to run without support (no existing issues with ankles or weakness)?
  • Ideally you need to build up gradually to running barefoot – do you have a plan in place to do this?
  • Do you really need to remove your shoes to improve your running form? have you considered other approaches?
  • Why do you want to take up barefoot running in the first place? Have you considered all the pros and cons?
  • Have you tried retraining your technique, while keeping your shoes on, or changing to a lighter shoe?
  • Do you heal quickly? Some people are less prone to bruising and heal more quickly from the cuts and abrasions that are more likely to occur when you run barefoot.
  • Consider making barefoot running just a small part of your running time, as a supplement to your main training.

Whatever your decision, it is a good idea to make it in conjunction with a qualified podiatrist who understands the issues around your running form and the possible injuries to your feet, ankles and egs.

Bruce says he sees a number of forefoot stress fractures from clients who are running barefoot, which is a common injury seen worldwide as a result of runners who haven’t changed their running style to adapt to running barefoot, so it is critical to get good advice to help avoid injury.

Image credit: