Barefoot running has been on everyone's radar since recent studies have shown it may help prevent running injuries. "Barefoot running allows the muscles and bone structure of the feet, ankle, and lower legs to work in a more natural way," explains Kyle Kepler, head coach of the University of Utah's Women's Cross Country and Track and Field programs. While running in sneakers usually causes your heel to strike the pavement first, barefoot running causes your mid- or fore-foot to land first, which Harvard researchers believe causes a less abrupt impact than landing heel first. A January study published in Nature found that heel-strikers have a higher risk of impact-related foot injuries like plantar fasciitis.
If you'd like to try barefoot running or stripped-down barefoot-like shoes, you'll have to make a few adjustments to your normal workout routine to help you get used to running without the solid cushioning of a traditional running sneaker. Kepler recommends the following five tips.
1. Learn proper form. The aim is to land on your forefoot or ball of your foot, before gently bringing your heel down. The landing should feel springy and natural. Watch out for tightness, pain, injury, swelling or bruising—all warning signs, Kepler says, that you might not be using proper form. (This video from the Harvard researchers shows you how to land your foot correctly.)
2. Alternate between sneakers and bare feet. Give yourself time to adjust to barefoot workouts before throwing away your sneakers. Those who switch cold-turkey to barefoot are "begging for an injury," says Kepler. He recommends introducing short, quick barefoot strides at the end of your regular runs—no more than 500 feet or 150 meters at a time. "Start with four or five of these bursts and build up to 10 to 12," Kepler advises. Don't sprint but do run faster than your normal jog. Rest for 90 seconds in between each set. Work up gradually to half-mile barefoot runs over the first few weeks and then a mile or longer.
3. Choose your surface carefully. For obvious reasons, you don't want to run barefoot on a hot blacktop or icy road. The ideal surface? A flat grass one free of rocks like a soccer or football field. Outdoor asphalt running tracks are also fine on cool days when the surface doesn't get too hot. Eventually, says Kepler, you'll develop thicker skin on the balls of your feet from running barefoot, which will make it easier to run on harder surfaces like pavement. You'll still, of course, need to watch out for dangers like broken glass if you decide to run barefoot on a city sidewalk.
4. Consider minimalist shoes rather than no shoes. If you're thinking about buying minimalist shoes, Kepler's advice is to try out a few brands to see which ones feel best on your feet. These become a necessity for running in colder weather. In fact, Kepler says, you'll probably need to wear a pair of socks with your minimalist shoes during winter months to avoid cold-related injuries like frostbite.
5. Try a barefoot walk. If you find barefoot running isn't your speed, try barefoot walking. This appears to strengthen the muscles of the foot and ankle better than walking with sneakers, according to the Harvard barefoot-running researchers. Interestingly, the forefoot striking rule doesn't necessarily apply to walking: a heel strike might be more suitable for strollers.