You were tired of the treadmills being full every time you went to the gym, so you decided to buy a home treadmill. Shoes were always a requirement at your gym, but now that you can exercise however you want, can you ditch the shoes and run on a treadmill barefoot? Is doing so a smart and healthy idea?
Barefoot running on a treadmill can be a decent way to get some exercise, although it doesn’t prepare you for barefoot running outdoors. Also, you must be aware that treadmills can get hot and that the running surface can be uncomfortable since it’s flat and unyielding.
If this is your first introduction to barefoot running, we highly advise you to continue reading. In this article, we’ll talk more about what barefoot running is and why it’s a good idea. We’ll then discuss how barefoot running works on a treadmill, including more details on the above downsides.
What Is Barefoot Running?
When you go for a run, it’s natural to put on a pair of shoes, right? You don’t want to scrape your feet on the concrete, not to mention wearing shoes is expected of you when you’re in public.
At least, it was. Another form of running is on the rise called natural or barefoot running. As that name tells you, a barefoot run is one without shoes, socks, or anything. Your feet are free and unencumbered.
If that sounds like too much for you, some barefoot runners have started wearing what are known as barefoot shoes or minimalist shoes during their runs. This style of footwear has a very thin sole so you can feel the ground like you’re not wearing any shoes but still enjoy the protection that is having your feet covered.
So where did barefoot running come from? Well, back in the days of the Ancient Greeks, most activities at the time were done barefoot or in very thin moccasins. One such popular example is Pheidippides, who completed the world’s first marathon in about 36 hours sans any kind of real footwear.
Other more recent athletes have popularized barefoot running too. Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila in 1969 participated in an Olympics marathon without shoes because none were available in his size. He did pretty well too! Shivnath Singh, a distance runner from India, ran throughout the 1970s without shoes, only tape on his feet. Even in the 2010 New York City Marathon was the number of barefoot runners more prevalent.
In some areas of the world like Latin America and Africa, barefoot running is common, but that’s not quite the case in the US, at least as of this writing. That said, among the sect of runners that do it, they’re very passionate about this form of running.
Is Barefoot Running Advantageous?
Why run barefoot in the first place, you ask? Is there some benefit to doing it over wearing shoes? Actually, there very well could be, such as the following perks.
Improves Your Working Memory
Your working memory is the part of your cognition that allows you to retain information on a limited basis. You use your working memory all the time in the behavioral choices you make and the decisions you choose.
A 2016 study published in Science News from the University of North Florida reported that barefoot running improves your working memory more compared to running with shoes on. To come to that conclusion, the researchers assessed more than 70 runners who were 18 to 44 years old. All participants ran for 16 minutes wearing footwear of their choice or none at all.
The barefoot runners had a 16-percent increase in working memory.
Why do barefoot runners have more working memory? According to the researchers, it’s due to the proprioception and tactile experiences that barefoot running demands of you.
May Allow You to Extend Your Running Economy
All runners have what is known as a running economy, or how they use their oxygen when on the trail. It’s more than about your stamina and energy levels, but biomechanics and physiology as well. Without getting too technical then, your running economy dictates your performance abilities. The better the economy, the more you can run.
Back in 2013, the University of New Hampshire Inquiry Journal published a piece about running economy among barefoot runners. The article detailed a study from 2012 involving around 30 runners participating in a 5K race, which is 3.11 miles. Interestingly, the participants ran on a treadmill, first at an upward angle, then a downward one.
The study mentions that the barefoot runners used less oxygen when running at the same treadmill speeds and grades as the runners wearing shoes. Beyond that, the researchers also note that the runners were better able to take their metabolic energy and make it into mechanical energy, which is required for improving your running economy.
Less Heel Striking So Possible Lower Risk of Injuries
The main appeal of barefoot running is that ditching the shoes changes the very fundamentals of how you run. When you wear shoes, especially poor-quality ones, the belief is that you do more heel striking.
When you heel strike, it means your heel is the first part of your foot to make contact with the ground as you run. You can also make contact with the front of your foot, which is forefront running, or the middle of your foot, aka midfoot running.
To more naturally achieve the stance needed to run primarily with the middle of your foot, running barefoot can help. When you run this way, you may be at a lower risk of injuries.
One such study on this topic comes from the British Journal of Sports Medicinein 2016. The researchers had more than 200 participants, up to 94 who wore shoes and 107 who ran barefoot. Here’s what the study had to say: “Statistically fewer overall, diagnosed, musculoskeletal injuries/runner were noted in the barefoot group.”
That said, the study does make it a point to mention that the runners who wore shoes didn’t have more injuries than barefoot runners. Those barefoot runners who were injured had mostly plantar surface pain and calf injuries while the runners with shoes were more likely to hurt their hips and knees.
This tells us that injuries can affect runners whether you wear shoes or not, just different kinds of injuries.
Reduced Contact Time
In running, contact time is how much time your foot spends on the ground when you take a stride. The slower you go when you run, the more contact time you tend to have and vice-versa. Thus, as often as you can, you want to reduce your contact time so you can increase your speed and perform better.
Can running without shoes really do that? It may be so!
A 2014 publication of the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine studied runners’ contact time when they wearing shoes versus going barefoot. All participants were male and in their 20s. The researchers, after identifying the foot-strike pattern of the runners, said that the barefoot runners had faster strides, which means their contact time was lower than the runners wearing shoes.
Should You Run Barefoot on a Treadmill?
Now that you know considerably more about barefoot running, let’s circle back around to our main question. Should you run barefoot on a treadmill? You can, but the jury is mixed.
Those who are proponents of this style of running suggest that before you hit the trail without shoes that you should practice on a treadmill. Yet NordicTrack, a treadmill manufacturer discourages the activity, which is telling.
In our research, we weren’t able to find out why NordicTrack doesn’t want its users to run on their treadmills sans shoes. In their own post about running barefoot, the company recommends using barefoot shoes when on their treadmills. If we had to guess why they suggest foregoing shoeless running altogether, it’s probably because you could injure yourself doing so.
So where does that leave you? Well, if you planned on running barefoot at some point, you’re going to eventually go on a real running trail without shoes. At least by running on a treadmill at home when barefoot, it’s easier to stop and treat yourself with ice or heat if you’re feeling sore.
Beware of These Hazards When Running Barefoot on a Treadmill
If you’d still like to proceed with running on a treadmill sans shoes, you must be aware of the potential injuries and other side effects that can occur. Read this section carefully and then decide if you’d rather jog on your treadmill with shoes or without them.
Treadmills Get Warm, Which You Don’t Notice Until You Run Without Shoes
A treadmill is a machine. The belt that spins constantly has internal mechanisms that send it whirring around. Like any machine that’s powered on, the treadmill begins to heat up as you use it, especially if you’re operating it at a quick speed.
With shoes on, you shouldn’t really notice this, but once you’re barefoot, you realize that the treadmill belt can get pretty warm! We’re not talking about it being hot enough to burn your feet, but it’s definitely toasty.
One of the biggest perks of barefoot running, even with barefoot shoes, is appreciating the feel of the ground beneath your feet. It’s considerably less fun to run barefoot if what’s under your feet is very warm!
You May Be More Likely to Suffer Overuse Injuries
While most barefoot runners will recommend a treadmill as a way to practice for barefoot running, not all do. Think of how you run on a treadmill versus out in the open. There’s a definite difference.
A treadmill is always flat while the terrain outdoors is not. Running constantly on a flat surface, especially without shoes, could increase your chances of developing an overuse injury.
Your Feet Get No Relief from Changing Terrain on a Treadmill
The differences in outdoor terrain are beneficial in another way, in that the changes provide some relief to your overworked feet. Think of how it feels to sink your feet into some dirt or sand after you’ve been running on hard concrete. It’s a pleasant experience every time. You never get that relief when running on a treadmill.
During terrain changes, some foot and ankle muscles can relax a bit while others activate. Your muscles get no breathing room when on a treadmill either, which is why overuse injuries are common.
The Tight Treadmill Belt Can Affect How You Run
Treadmills belts are slim and tight even if you have a pretty large treadmill. If you like having the room to space out your toes–something that barefoot enthusiasts typically do–you can get so distracted with how your toes are positioned when running barefoot on a treadmill that you can trip yourself up, literally in this case.
The way you run may change due to the tightness of the treadmill belt. If that’s not what gets you, then the way the belt moves probably will. Treadmill belts rotate in such a way that the belt is coming down at you.
When you run, you’re usually propelling yourself, but the treadmill motion can make you decelerate. Now you’re driving more force, even heel-striking, and thus reaping few if any benefits of running barefoot.
Running barefoot is a growing phenomenon in North America. Those who love it appreciate the feeling of the earth beneath their feet. They may be on to something, as running barefoot can improve your working memory, running economy, and contact time. Besides possibly performing better, you may be safeguarded from some injuries as well.
Yet running on a treadmill when barefoot is not the same, so it’s not as highly recommended. You can do it, but be aware that the tightness of the treadmill might change the way you run. Oh, and treadmills heat up too, which can make running uncomfortable.
Running is a great form of exercise, so whether you do it with shoes or without them, take your time, listen to your body, and you’ll be running far in no time!