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The Dirt on Going Barefoot

December 5, 2011

Once a week or so people ask me what I think about going barefoot — or using minimal footwear rather than regular sneakers — while working out, or running in particular, a trend that began about two years ago.

I’d like to tell you I’m an expert in this topic, but I’m not.

Then again, maybe I can offer my perspective, considering I’ve literally spent hundreds of hours watching personal training clients and those in my fitness classes work out with and without shoes. That and I’m not looking to sell anything.

The Basics of Barefoot

When the barefoot running phenomenon began, I took a great seminar from a foot expert who laid out the reasons going barefoot is so good. Doing so lets us:


1) take in necessary information through our sense of touch

2) exercise our foot’s full range of motion

3) fully utilizes all of our foot muscles


Whereas highly structured shoes don’t allow for any of that.


Deciding to Go Barefoot or Not

About a year ago I began offering a barefoot option for those who attend my abs and back classes where we practice a lot of balancing on one foot. I’v e since occasionally had barefoot days in my bootcamp-style strength class, which usually includes running, jumping, lunging and generally playing, often with partners.
But whenever I propose that people go barefoot, the next thing I say is, “but you don’t have to.”

After all, there are some great reasons to use shoes that have good support:

1) You might be like me and have to use orthotics because one leg is slightly longer than another and such a discrepancy can cause problems at the knees and hips.

2) Or you may have a medical problem for which your doctor advises that you use shoes with support .

If you like the idea of going barefoot, but are worried about catching a foot virus or infection, or of stepping on something that could injure you, or maybe you just feel embarrassed about how your feet look, consider getting what runner Christopher McDougall, (author of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Ever Seen calls in his Nov. 2011 New York Times article “barefoot-style shoes” with a minimal sole meant for protection only, rather than for support.

Realize, however, that a minimal sole is still a layer between your foot and the surface you’re walking and/or running on, and so will minimize the information your foot takes in via the skin regarding angle, pressure, temperature, etc.

The Factors That Matter

1. Fitness of your foot

If you’ve been wearing high-tech sneakers for years, realize your foot muscles have probably atrophied to some extent. Therefore, if you want to go barefoot or use minimal footwear more often, do so for only a little while per day and gradually increase the time period, which will allow you to build the necessary foot muscle. During that time, considering doing specific foot-strengthening exercises. Here are some resources to get you started:

2. What you’re doing while barefoot

There’s a big difference between walking around barefoot a little throughout the day and running five miles a day in a barefoot or minimally shoe-less state. If what you’re doing while barefoot doesn’t cause any discomfort, you’re okay. But if you’re in pain, going barefoot or minimally so may not be a great option, either because you haven’t built your foot muscles enough or your body is heavy enough that it’s exerting more force than your foot can take.

As my podiatrist said, most ballet dancers can get away with jumping around in thin-soled ballet slippers because the dancers are light, maybe 130 pounds or less. The story changes significantly for heavier and/or taller people.

3. Surfaces

A former client said he used his almost-barefoot shoes to run on an asphalt path near his house, but before long began experiencing foot pain that didn’t go away until he switched back to running shoes with more support. His advice?

I think barefoot running might be fine if you’re running sand or dirt, but I wouldn’t recommend it for paved surfaces or the hardwood/concrete flooring we use in commercial buildings.

How Your Foot Movement Will Change

The first time I walked into my bootcamp-style strength class and said people could take off their shoes, most eyebrows went up except for a few who already went barefoot or wore minimal footwear regularly already. But the people in my class are great and they humored me.

I started them running in a circle around the room and the change in movement was obvious, immediate and startling. Rather than running heel-toe in a loud, thudding way, everyone ran toe-heel in quiet, light steps. The reason was as obvious and immediate: the body instinctively knows leading with the heel will be painful, so the toes automatically set down first to break the impact. The movement then follows through the ball of the foot and passes the body’s weight easily through the heel.

The same proved true for jumping: a toe-heel landing instead of the slap of a flat sole.

Therefore, if you’d like to do more movement without shoes, and especially running, become aware of the changes in your movement. Also consider doing as Mr. McDougall advises by taking courses that teach people to run barefoot. Here are a few resources:

Happy working out!

From → Trends

One Comment
  1. I inherited terrible feet from my mother. This past year has proved to be painful just doing yoga. T’chi isn’t so bad. My balance is generally good, if it weren’t for my feet. I’ve tried the inserts, but I can’t see a difference. Having hardwood floors doesn’t help. I’m following your blog and paying close attention.

    Happy work out, Martha.

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