Barefoot Running: Pros and Cons of Running Without Shoes

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There is a growing subculture of runners going shoeless and embracing the barefoot running lifestyle. Advocates claim that running barefoot improves foot biomechanics and reduces injury risk.

While studies have found that running efficiency increases by 4% when running barefoot, there is still a lack of well-designed studies comparing the incidence of injuries in runners wearing shoes with those running barefoot.

Shoes for Running Barefoot

Although it may sound like an oxymoron—shoes for barefoot running—larger shoemakers are embracing the semi-barefoot movement. They're doing this by making minimalist shoes that offer little more than a rubber sole for protection from the pavement.

What Are Minimalist Shoes?

Minimalist shoes are lighter than "traditional" running shoes to mimic the way you would naturally run barefoot. They are also lower to the ground and offer less cushioning, which may improve your stride and increase your sensitivity to the ground underfoot.

A perk of wearing a minimalist shoe versus going barefoot is that it offers stable grip and arch support while protecting your feet from glass, rocks, or other hazards while you run.

The Pros and Cons of Going Barefoot

Some experts agree with the shoeless runners in that wearing shoes weakens the small muscles in the feet and prevents the tendons, ligaments, and natural arches from doing their job. They believe that the result of supportive shoe inserts, orthotics, and extra cushioning is poor foot biomechanics and increases the risk of foot, leg, and knee injuries.

Other experts argue that the right shoes can, in fact, correct biomechanical problems and help reduce injury risk. One could also argue that if treating foot pain was as simple as going barefoot, more podiatrists would recommend it as a simple solution. Most podiatrists, however, still prescribe orthotics to relieve foot pain.

Until more research is available, it's hard to say if shoes are helpful or harmful to your foot health, but the barefoot running trend has spread to the shoe manufacturers.

  • Strengthens your gait and feet

  • Reduces injuries

  • Forces you to use correct technique

  • May improve balance and proprioception

  • More connection to the ground

  • Little foot protection

  • May increase Achilles tendinitis and calf strain

  • May increase plantar pain

  • More susceptible to blisters

  • You may look and feel strange at first

Potential Benefits

While going barefoot or wearing minimal footwear may not cure all that ails you, the following are some very compelling arguments for going shoeless or, at least, wearing minimalist shoes.

  • You may develop a more natural gait and strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the foot.
  • Runners learn to land on the mid-sole and front of the foot rather than the heel. The prevalence of heel striking is a direct result of excessive padding of running shoes and research shows this isn't the most effective natural running stride.
  • You may improve balance and proprioception. Without shoes, you activate the smaller muscles in your feet, ankles, legs, and hips that are responsible for better balance and coordination.
  • You may feel more grounded. Being barefoot helps you improve balance, but it also helps you stay grounded and connected to your environment. You learn to spread your toes and expand your foot so it becomes a more solid and connected base that supports all your movements.

Potential Drawbacks

Suddenly going barefoot or wearing a minimal shoe can be quite a shock to the foot. The transition requires a gradual adaptation phase. But that isn't the only concern about a shoeless workout.

  • Shoes offer a significant amount of protection from road debris such as glass, nails, rocks, and thorns. They also offer insulation in cold weather and protect us from frostbite in ice and snow.
  • The bottom of the feet (plantar surface) is soft and tender for most people. Going without a stiff-soled shoe may initially cause plantar pain or, in those susceptible, increase the risk of plantar fasciitis.
  • Almost everyone who switches to a minimal shoe or starts going shoeless will find themselves battling blisters for the first few weeks until calluses are formed. Getting acclimated to the rough ground underneath requires some time and effort.
  • Most runners aren't used to going barefoot, so a minimalist shoe will be a shock to the feet, and the muscles will initially feel overworked.
  • The lower your heels are to the ground, the harder your Achilles tendon will need to work. In some people, this may even lead to injuries such as Achilles tendinitis or calf strain when the typical heel lift is removed from the shoes.

Barefoot Shoes vs. Traditional Running Shoes

Traditional running shoes have 10 to 12 millimeters of cushioning in the heels compared to the toes. This feature of the shoe is called the "heel-to-toe drop" and simply means that your toes drop 10 to 12 millimeters below where your heel is sitting in the shoe.

By contrast, minimalist shoes have an 8-millimeter drop or less. Some manufacturers also offer “zero-drop” shoes, or no heel-to-toe drop, providing the same effect as running barefoot. This type of shoe holds both your heel and forefoot at the same level and does not offer any stability support.

Minimal Shoes
  • Usually made of light, bendable materials with a low stack height

  • Less than 8 mm heel-to-toe drop

  • Better for runners with more calf flexibility and ankle mobility

Traditional Running Shoes
  • Thick heel cushioning and stiff soles

  • A 10 to 12 mm heel-to-toe drop

  • Better for runners with an aggressive heel strike, tight calves, or Achilles tendonitis

Getting Started

Your feet will require some toughening up at first. So, introduce your feet to barefoot running by walking on a rubberized track. A treadmill or a gravel path can also work.

Start by walking around the track a few times. Once you're warmed up, run a short distance and practice correct running mechanics. After each run, stretch your feet and check for blisters or any pain in your feet, ankles, or knees.

Do not do too much too soon. Gradually increase your distance by 10% week after week.

Practice Good Running Form

  • Land lightly, smoothly, and quietly on your mid-sole and then roll through to the front of your toes.
  • Use short strides and avoid letting the soles of your feet slap the ground.
  • Your heels can touch the ground, but only after you have first made contact to the ground with your midfoot.
  • A common mistake is to push the ground away with your toes, which may lead to blisters over longer distances.

After a few weeks of running barefoot and working on correct running technique, try these tips while wearing minimal shoes. You may need to try a few different types of minimal shoes to find the right ones for you.

Don't hesitate to consult with a physical therapist or sports medicine physician if pain persists beyond blisters and aching soles of the feet.

Choosing the Right Minimalist Shoes for You

Many shoe companies now offer minimal shoes for everything from running to cross-training activities such as weight lifting, yoga, and CrossFit. There are also many different types of minimal shoes available for women and men.

The right fit and comfort level depends on the shape of your feet, the height of your arches, and any particular bodily characteristics or injuries that may be aggravated by the cushioning found under the heel of traditional running shoes.

A good minimal running shoe should be light and have less cushioning in the heels to allow for foot and ankle mobility. Once on, they should feel as though they are an extension of your feet when you are running in them.

The heel-to-toe drop varies greatly from runner to runner and depends on:

A minimal shoe with a lower heel-to-toe drop may be better for runners with chronic knee issues, whereas a higher drop will direct more stress to the knees and hips but will be easier on the feet, ankles, Achilles, and the calves.

Choosing the right minimalist shoe for you might come down to some trial and error as you work on your running technique and get better acquainted with your foot strike pattern and the functional movement of your feet.

1 Source
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Rice H, Patel M. Manipulation of foot strike and footwear increases achilles tendon loading during running. Am J Sports Med. 2017;45(10):2411-2417. doi:10.1177/0363546517704429.

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.