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Should you be running barefoot?

I walked into a physio's treatment room a couple of weeks ago for a sports massage, asking if I could get some massage on my right foot as well as my upper back. Having unintentionally spent an entire day in my barefoot shoes, I was not surprised when she immediately looked at my feet and said, "Do you wear these all the time?".

As with most things health and fitness, it seems most people sit firmly at one end of the spectrum or the other: be barefoot, all the time, shoes are the root cause of all your problems; or, walking barefoot is a fast-track to injury, more support and cushioning will fix all your problems. I should know; I have been both.

[If you're not in the mood for one of my usual grey-area rambles, please discontinue reading now.]

My opinions: a brief history

Before I was in the job I was doing before being a personal trainer and therapist, I worked in a running shop. Watching people run on the treadmill, deciding in 30 seconds whether they would need arch support at the end of their first half-marathon or not, preparing them to spend £120+ on the higher-end pairs of shoes with more cushioning if they mentioned shinsplints. I wasn't wrong - in fact to my knowledge no shoes I recommended were ever returned - but I was unenlightened.

When barefoot running leapt onto the scene, I disdaindfully waved away customers who came in seeking the first Nike Free; our shop didn't believe in that; real runners wore real running shoes. Before long, we received a delivery of a New Balance barefoot trail shoe, and I had to allow people to buy them. I heard rumours of other branches selling the Nike Free, but they were mostly concession stores and gym-based branches that had to sell the cool stuff; our shop was for running purists. At some point, my colleague received a free pair of barefoot shoes (maybe by Brooks?) and swore that when he ran in them he had no pain. An anomaly, I thought.

I even wrote a little handout, which was converted to a blog post, on how to buy running shoes - with all the focus on cushioning and support.

Anyway, you all see where this is going. I aquired a few pairs of barefoot shoes, and noticed my foot pain (searing nerve pain I would regularly get along my bunions) had all but disappeared. I moved away from barefoot shoes for a few years because the company I liked changed their designed, but now, as many of you know, I run exclusively in barefoot shoes. I also put myself out of action for several weeks after my first barefoot run, as many do, but I'm not going back to cushioned shoes anytime soon.

So why the change?

Weirdly, the pandemic. With more time on my hands, I decided to focus on a few things I had always been curious about, one of these being foot mobility and strength. Honestly, looking back, I'm not sure when or why I decided I should focus on this, but I'm glad I did. I watched my feet change shape and gain strength and mobility week after week. The combination of enjoying the full use and functionality of my feet, and the almost 24-hours-a-day I spent barefoot, made it very disconcerting to put shoes back on to go out for a walk. I felt how cramped my feet were, and how much function I lost as a result. Changing to barefoot shoes was a no-brainer.

What about you?

So should you be switching to barefoot shoes too? As always, it depends:

  1. how much time are you willing to dedicate to teaching your feet and ankles (and calves, and glutes) to learning how to walk again?

  2. what are your goals in transitioning to barefoot shoes?

  3. do you have any genuine limitations to optimal foot function?

Number 1 sounds a little dramatic - it's obviously not the same as learning to walk again after a surgery or illness - but frankly you should approach it this way. It is likely that none of your bones, joints, or connective tissues have experienced the world in this way, and therefore they haven't learnt to move you against gravity in this way.

Number 2: you know I don't really love goals, but if you're learning how to walk again you're sort of going to need the motivation. If your goal is to do it because Men's Health says you should, I'd encourage you to rethink.

Number 3 is a tricky one, as I don't like people to feel limited. However, if you have had a bunion surgery, for instance, that has resulted in restricted extension (i.e. bending) of the big toe joint, you may not be able to recover the walking gait necessary for barefoot walking, and may end up compensating and putting more stress on other joints. Does this mean you shouldn't try and improve your foot mobility and strength? Absolutely not - you have a lot to gain by working on it - but maybe it means barefoot shoes are something to consider a few steps further down the line than someone who has no mechanical limitation, and you may never feel they are an appropriate choice for you, which is also fine.

Running is not fast walking

I know we all know that running is not just fast walking, but I think we can easily underestimate the physical demands of running. The prevalence of large events such as charity 10k runs and iconic marathons has made it an expectation that everyone should run, with many of us absorbing the unspoken assumption that 5km is the minimum acceptable distance (why is it Couch to 5k and not Couch to 3k? Genuine question.). The natural follow-on is that running isn't something we train for by doing anything other than running.

Running shoes - with their ample cushioning to allow us to strike the ground wherever our foot happens to land, varying levels of support keeping our ankles stable no matter what our mechanics are doing, and toe spring which helps us propel ourselves off the ball of our foot - have made running more accessible. This isn't a bad thing of course, except that it has further eroded the notion that running is a complex and demanding action.

And so, with every year that passes, we are further from prepared to run barefoot - physically and psychologically. A very personal example: I thought I was being super sensible stopping my first barefoot run after about 12 minutes, well before anything started to hurt. Immediately after the run, however, both lower calves seized up, and gradually over the next couple of weeks my ankles stiffened and, one at a time, randomly swelled up. With hindsight, I don't know why I thought 12 minutes of single-leg plyometrics (i.e. jumping) was an appropriate place to start - which proves my point that our underestimation of what it takes to run is deeply engrained. The fact that this didn't happen in traditional running shoes, which I had been running in until that point, goes to show how much they change our mechanics.

I have now reframed the role of running in my training routine: it is not a cardiovascular exercise for me, but a strength and plyometric exercise. I use running - barefoot - to keep my feet, calves, hamstrings and glutes active, strong, and resilient. For me, at this point, given that I am lucky enough to be able to cycle, it just wouldn't be good use of my time and energy to reduce the intensity of my running in order to improve my fitness (and also, I hate jumping, so if I can do anything else for my plyometric loading, which I know I need - we all do - I'll take it).

That's not to say it's not a valid use of your time, though, so you tell me - should you be running barefoot?

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