Before recently, you never would have dared to run outdoors without a pair of shoes on. Your friend has started barefoot running though, and they’ve said they’re experiencing a lot of benefits. One of these, they’ve found, is that they run faster. Could that be true? Can you increase your running speed when you go barefoot?
Yes, running barefoot does make you go faster since you’re reducing your contact time with the ground. This speeds up your strides so you can cross the same distance at a quicker pace than someone with a slower contact time, such as a person wearing shoes.
There’s science to back this up too, which we’ll discuss further in this article. We’ll also go over the basics of barefoot running so you can decide whether this will be your new means of running going forward. You’re not going to want to miss it!
Barefoot Running 101
If you need a quick introduction to barefoot running, allow us to provide one here.
Known as natural running, barefoot running is when you shed your shoes and hit your usual running route. Some barefoot runners will indeed jog sans shoes on asphalt, concrete, packed dirt, and other hard surfaces. Other runners prefer the softness of a sandy beach or a grassy field.
What’s the appeal of barefoot running? There’s a lot to love about this form of running, actually. Being able to feel the earth under you can enhance your appreciation of nature.
You also completely change the way you run when you ditch the shoes, and not by anything you do intentionally. It just happens. Rather than strike the ground with your heel, you connect with the middle or front of your foot, which is known as mid-foot running and front-foot running respectively. Barefoot runners believe this can reduce their risk of injuries.
Does Barefoot Running Make You Go Faster? How?
Okay, so knowing all that, can you really run faster when going barefoot? The science points towards yes.
We talked about this in our post on running barefoot on a treadmill. A study published in 2014 in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine assessed how a group of male participants ran when wearing shoes, when wearing minimalist shoes, and going without shoes at all.
All the participants in the group were between 14 and 25 years old. They had years of competitive running experience, some runners as long as eight years, so running was nothing new to them.
For the study, the participants were asked to run on a treadmill for four minutes at different velocities and conditions. The velocities were intended to represent the conditions of a five-kilometer race.
To determine how the runners’ speeds might have been impacted, the researchers took recordings of the runners’ joint kinematics in 3D and then used spatiotemporal testing to gauge their ground reaction force data.
What did they find? The runners with shoes had an increased contact time compared to the barefoot runners. Okay, but what is contact time?
Whether you heel-strike or use your mid-foot or front-foot to strike the ground, when you run, your foot is going to make contact with the ground. There’s no way around it since you can’t levitate. That time your foot spends on the pavement is known as contact time.
A slow running pace is usually synonymous with increased contact time whereas a faster running pace decreases your contact time. So looking back at the data, the runners with shoes were slower than the runners without.
The study also mentions that the barefoot runners had a much higher stride frequency, which would boost their speed as well.
The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, in a 2014 report, examined the relationship between foot striking pattern and contact time. Their study had 14 participants, again all male. The researchers called the participants “sub-elite…competitive distance runners.” In other words, these are serious runners.
The participants ran outdoors for six minutes and weren’t asked to change anything about how they ran.
What did the researchers discover in this study? The heel or rearfoot strikers had more contact time than the mid-foot strikers. Remember, most barefoot runners tend to use mid-foot striking when they run. You could train yourself to run this way in a pair of shoes, but it’s far more difficult.
You may notice that the study mentions running economy, which is something else that came up in our article about running barefoot on a treadmill. If you missed that post, running economy is how well you can perform on the trail, aka how far you can run and for how long.
You have to reach a certain aerobic intensity before running economy becomes measurable. Then it’s a matter of reviewing how you use your energy and your oxygen. In other words, the runners who huff and puff right before a race and burst through the starting line, pushing themselves as far as they can go at the beginning tend to have a poor running economy.
Why? They tire themselves out within the first mile or so. By the time they get to the finish line, they’re so winded and exhausted that they crawl to the end.
Someone with a good running economy can pace themselves and use their energy sparingly at some points and more fervently at others. The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport study purports that mid-foot striking uses somewhat less oxygen than heel striking, the former requiring 8.7 millimeters per minute or ml min-1 kg-1.
The University of New Hampshire Inquiry Journal, in a 2013 piece, details a study from the year prior that the school performed. We discussed this study elsewhere on the blog, but it’s worth bringing up again now.
The trial involved 30 runners, 18 to 45 years old, who regularly ran weekly distances of at least 30 miles. The university’s research was broken up into two phases, the first of which was fitness matching based on 5k performance.
The second phase lasted 10 weeks. Some of the runners who usually wore shoes tried barefoot running in this phase, their running economy being tracked by measuring their submaximal volume of oxygen.
The runners who went sans shoes had better running economy than the runners with shoes since they used less oxygen.
Do You Really Have to Go Barefoot or Are Shoes Allowed?
It’s one thing to run through a patch of grass without shoes. If it’s early enough in the morning and the dew is still fresh on the grass, you’d imagine the sensation of wet grass would actually feel pretty nice. Yet running barefoot on hard ground is something you’re very reluctant to do. Do you have to go completely sans shoes when running barefoot or is some form of footwear allowed?
Indeed, barefoot shoes are permitted when barefoot running since there’s not much to them. These minimalist shoes feature a zero-drop sole so your feet are as near to the ground as possible. The sole is also very thin, meaning there’s little separating your feet and the ground below you. This produces a better groundfeel, which allows your feet to take in the texture of gravel versus sand, grass, or dirt.
Barefoot shoes offer far less cushioning than a traditional pair of running shoes, but you do get some cushioning and support. This can put reluctant runners’ minds at ease.
Some barefoot shoes have spaces for each toe while others don’t so your toes can wiggle around. Either way, wide toe boxes are a common trait in barefoot shoes, as your feet are supposed to be able to move freely.
A good compromise between running completely barefoot and wearing shoes is the huarache. These lace-up sandals include a strap for your toes to slip between as well as laces that you tie over your ankle. Yes, you can run in huaraches, and they’re indeed considered an athletic shoe.
Is Running Barefoot Safe?
Shoes exist for a reason. The earliest shoes were created by the Egyptians in 1550 BC. These shoes were constructed from woven reeds, but even the Ancient Egyptians saw the need to protect their feet.
Your whole life, you’ve never left the house without shoes. Stores have the motto of “no shirt, no shoes, no service.” Running barefoot can feel like it goes against everything you’ve ever learned. What’s more, you wonder how safe it is.
We mentioned earlier how barefoot runners believe that mid-foot or front-foot striking reduces your risk of injury compared to heel striking. There is something to that. If you remember from our post on running barefoot on a treadmill, we cited this 2016 report from the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
The participants in the study included 94 shoe-wearing runners and 107 barefoot runners, so 201 people in all. The runners logged their injuries over the course of a year. The data concludes that barefoot runners had a lower likelihood of musculoskeletal injuries, which are those that can affect the lower back, neck, blood vessels, joints, ligaments, nerves, and muscles.
However, the researchers found that between the runners with shoes versus those without, the groups both had “similar injury rates.” In other words, while you may avoid one type of injury as a barefoot runner–musculoskeletal injuries–you’re not necessarily any less injury-prone than a runner who wears shoes.
Plus, barefoot running does introduce other hazards that runners with shoes don’t have to worry about.
One of these is puncture risks. If you’re wearing barefoot shoes, that’s one thing, as the soles might be able to prevent that nail from driving through the shoe and into your foot. When running without shoes though, your feet are prone to making contact with anything unpleasant that might be in your path.
It’s not like you can run with your head aimed towards the ground to study what’s in front of you. This will lead to neck pain, and besides, when you gain enough speed, what’s on the ground is sort of a blur.
There is also no way you can comb through an entire running trail to check for hazards. Even if you somehow had the time and inclination for that, you could have looked at the trail on a Tuesday afternoon, and by Thursday, whoops, there’s a hazard.
Running barefoot is always a risk. Even on soft surfaces like a sandy beach, you never know if you could crunch on a seashell and cut your foot. In tall grass, you might miss that protruding branch and trip or–even worse–puncture your foot on the branch. Let’s not even get into the possibility of stepping on bugs or snakes depending on where you live, but they are risks.
A Washington Post article from 2014 includes a statement from the American Podiatric Medical Association. Here’s what the organization had to say about barefoot running: “Barefoot running has been touted as improving strength and balance, while promoting a more natural running style. However, risks of barefoot running include a lack of protection, which may lead to injuries such as puncture wounds, and increased stress on the lower extremities.”
The article also cites a newsletter from the American Council on Exercise or ACE. Here’s an excerpt from that newsletter: “If you aren’t experiencing chronic injuries while running, don’t quit with your shoes just yet…Going barefoot or wearing Vibrams will affect which muscles are used and how you use them, all the way up the kinetic chain…And the results of those changes are uncertain.”
Vibram, by the way, is a barefoot running shoe brand that produces FiveFingers shoes, one of the most popular minimalist shoes.
Tips for Acclimating to Running Barefoot
If you choose to proceed with barefoot running, here are some tips for adjusting.
Start with Barefoot Shoes First
A pair of barefoot shoes is like the training wheels on a bicycle. You’re getting part of the experience of running barefoot but not the dangerous part like the injuries and puncture wound risks.
Barefoot shoes, since they’ve boomed in popularity, are widely available in about every style, color, and price point you could want. We’re not saying to buy a cheap pair that might offer zero protection and cushioning, but you can purchase a mid-priced pair of barefoot shoes and get ready for shoeless running that way.
Consider Training on a Treadmill
Some proponents say running barefoot on a treadmill before you start running barefoot for real is great practice while others don’t recommend it. As we’ve discussed on the blog, running on a treadmill does have a few risks.
For one, as you use a treadmill and it heats up, you’re likely to feel it sans socks and shoes. The terrain of the treadmill, so to speak, never changes, which can prevent your feet from getting any relief. This might increase your risk of injuries more than running barefoot outside.
You might also find that running on a treadmill is a bit awkward, especially without shoes. The narrow belt of the treadmill and the sensation of running barefoot can be a bad combination.
Know That the Perks Aren’t Immediate
Do you remember the first time you ran? You couldn’t even clear half a mile, let alone a whole mile. Now imagine you’re back at the beginning, as barefoot running really is like learning to run all over again. You need to figure out your new gait, how you’ll make contact with the ground, and how you’ll feel comfortable running without shoes.
So yes, you may someday have a better running economy and faster performance times when running barefoot, but first, you need to get past the learning curve. If you go into barefoot running expecting instant results, you’re definitely going to be disappointed.
When You Run Outdoors the First Few Times, Limit How Far You Go
Suddenly exposing your feet to the ground can be shocking. You didn’t realize asphalt was this poky or that wet grass was so slippery. You forgot how hot the sand can be in the middle of the afternoon too.
Between the sensations of the ground below you and your altered running gait, prepare for very short runs the first few times you go out barefoot. We wouldn’t even say to halve your normal running distance, but halve that half and maybe even halve it again.
As you begin adjusting, you can increase your distance, but during those early days, you must be willing to take it slow.
Listen to Your Body
We would say this when running with shoes too, but since barefoot running is a whole different ballgame, you have to be especially in-tune with your body. If your feet are a bit hot because you’re running over warm sand, that’s not such a big deal, but ankle pains are. Stop and take a break if you’re hurting and then determine whether you can continue running.
Barefoot running does increase your speed as you have a better running economy and you make less contact with the ground. This is attributed to your mid-foot or front-foot striking compared to the heel striking typical of runners wearing shoes.
As great and freeing as barefoot running can be, please make yourself aware of the health risks as well. To remind you, those risks include lower-body injuries, strains, abrasions, and even puncture wounds.
Being aware of the risks and rewards of barefoot running lets you make an educated decision about whether this style of running is best for you. We hope this article helped you with that decision!