Running barefoot, or with minimal foot protection (shoes that have no cushion in the heel pad and a very thin layer of shoe between your skin and the ground) has increased recently in popularity. What should be a simple concept has been made more complex by various claims and research that seems to refute the benefits of “natural” running.

Let’s start with the basics. Humans have evolved over thousands of years into very efficient runners…without shoes. Wearing shoes significantly alters running mechanics and applies abnormal stress to the lower extremities (especially the knees). Wearing shoes (over a lifetime) also physically changes the structure of the foot…and not in a good way (bunions, hammer toes, etc.) Wearing shoes also weakens the muscles of the foot and ankle.

The critics of barefoot running claim that running without shoes will increase the risk of injuries…which IS true, but ONLY if you do not allow the body adequate time to adapt to running barefoot. I am not aware of any research that claims running in shoes is better for the body vs. never having run in shoes. There are several studies that demonstrate better foot/ankle health in societies that do not run/walk in shoes on a regular basis. So the argument against running barefoot really comes down to: since people are used to ( and the body has adapted to) wearing shoes, they should continue to run in shoes.

For people interested in running barefoot, I recommend slowly transitioning from running shoes to minimalist shoes to barefoot. More research needs to be done to help establish how much time is needed to safely progress to barefoot running. But in general, the longer you have been wearing shoes, then longer it will take to be able to run barefoot safely. I believe people should walk (especially around the house) barefoot as much as possible their entire life to help counteract the effects of wearing shoes.

For an adult who has run in shoes their entire life, adapting to running barefoot should be done over many months. I recommend building up strength and tissue tolerance first through special exercises, then progressing to walking 3-5 miles comfortably before beginning a running program. Children and young adults can incorporate a little bit of barefoot running immediately since their feet haven’t been adversely affected yet (hopefully) by wearing shoes.

Words of caution: running in shoes allow you to run in almost any environment, any surface. Running barefoot limits the surface (should be a forgiving surface such as grass, trails, sand) and the environment (cold weather, snow). The human body did not evolve running barefoot on cement or asphalt,  so don’t expect your body to adapt quickly (or ever) to running barefoot on streets.

Barefoot running is absolutely healthier for the human body than running in shoes. But you need to use caution when transitioning back to barefoot running if you are used to running in shoes.