In my practice as a physical therapist, I notice that more and more people are taking up barefoot running. They try it in hopes of healing their aching knees, ankles, or hips or because they’ve heard it’s the “natural” thing to do. While I’m not opposed to barefoot running, I’m also not convinced that it’s a magic bullet that works for everyone. If you’re currently doing well with your running routine and you don’t have any injuries, it might be best to think twice before joining the barefoot bandwagon. However, if you’re going to give it a try, here are four things to think about before you get started.
First: Are your hips strong enough?
Alignment of your legs and hips contributes to proper mechanics while running; research shows that the gluteus maximus and medius are key muscles that help control your legs as you run. Whether you’re running with or without shoes, make sure that your hip muscles are strong enough to maintain proper leg position– it will prevent injuries down the line.
Stand on one leg in front of a mirror and look at your knee. Hop up and down a few times. As you take off and land, see if your knee stays over your foot or if it “dances” all over the place. Does it move inward, outward, or back and forth, or are you able to control your knee in space as you land? If you find your knee wiggling instead of staying steady, then it’s time to get your rear in gear. “The Clam” is a great exercise for getting started with this.
Second: How’s your balance?
Stand on one foot and try to maintain your balance. It shouldn’t be too difficult for a runner to hold steady for 30 seconds on a flat surface. If you lean to one side or tip over easily, it may be challenging to control your form when you run.
The best way to improve your balance is to practice! Practice while brushing your teeth, while on the phone, while waiting for coffee. To make balancing harder, try tossing a ball while balancing on one leg and catching it with one hand. Remember to minimize the wobbling and leaning and don’t let the opposite foot touch the ground.
Third: Are your calf muscles strong enough?
When running barefoot, most runners will naturally land on the ball of the foot instead of the heel. (This differs significantly from running in shoes where the heel is often the first to strike). To make sure that you don’t injure yourself when running barefoot, you’ll need strong calf muscles.
Test out your calf strength and control by standing on one foot and holding on to a countertop or a wall. To see if you have normal strength, rise up onto your toes and slowly lower down — it’s critical that you lower with control Do this 25 times. If this is easy, that’s good, but it’s not a guarantee that you will be able to maintain the same control when your foot hits the ground with the dynamic motion of running. So, when you start barefoot running, pay attention to your body: If soreness shows up in the bottom of your foot or your heel, have it assessed by a health care provider.
Fourth: Start slowly and train your way into it.
If you’ve been running in shoes or if you know that you’ve been a heel striker your whole life, it’s going to take some work to adjust to running barefoot. Start with short runs and see if you’re sore the next day. Increase your time and distance slowly–don’t double or triple your distance because it didn’t hurt yesterday.
Be sure to keep your legs and trunk strong, and pay attention to any unusual soreness or pain, especially if it doesn’t go away quickly. If something hurts, try to figure out why by reevaluating your mechanics and having your injury assessed by a health care provider. Don’t train through the pain.
For a longer post with my opinion about barefoot running, see Is Barefoot Best? The Truth About Running Techniques.