Barefoot running, either literally running barefoot or using shoes with minimal cushioning, is very popular, but highly contested. Almost everyone seems to have an opinion about it, and it raises a frequent question from our readers, “Is barefoot running good for you?” Personally, I like barefoot running, but some of the roads and sidewalks around me are constructed using very jagged concrete, so I use barefoot running shoes which have zero cushioning but a protective tread to protect the skin. But just because I like barefoot running doesn’t necessarily mean it is suitable for people in various stages of curing knee injuries. So I’m going to take a moment to explain in full both why I like it, and what it means for your health.
Why I like barefoot running
If you have developed good bio-mechanics, barefoot running is an excellent way to keep yourself true to them, as it can be very unforgiving on movement faults. Firstly, for the obvious reason that if you clatter your heel down in a heavy heel strike whilst running barefoot, it will hurt a lot and quickly teach you to plant a more level mid-foot strike for each pace you take. Secondly, by not having a heel raised higher than the shoe’s forefoot, barefoot running keeps you disciplined in making sure you are diligent in maintaining your programme of soft-tissue massage of your lower leg musculature, and maintaining proper lower leg mobility. There is no sharper wake-up call to tell you that you have slackened on your rolling and stretching than going on a barefoot run and feeling the telling tightness in your calves as you set out. The third reason I like barefoot running is because, without any shaped insoles to rely on, any tendency to collapse the arch of your foot or turn out your toes as you run will be made really obvious and cause discomfort. This teaches you the need to keep your feet straight as you run and to work on your hip external rotation strength in your squat training, to prevent the internal rotation of the leg which collapses the arch of the foot.
But is barefoot running really good for you?
If you are early on in your journey to correcting your knee injuries (just beginning to follow the lessons on this website, covering how to improve the way you move your body), there is a good chance you do not yet have good biomechanics. That is to say, you will move imperfectly. If so, there is a much safer and more effective way to work on developing good biomechanics than doing it through barefoot running: that way is squat training. As was discussed in our article on why you need to learn to squat before you can run, it’s important to work on moving properly through learning the techniques of slower strength exercises like squats before moving onto faster movements like running. As squats are slow and static it gives you time to analyse and correct movement faults as you go, whereas with running the fault will have happened before you have time to rectify it. The three advantages of barefoot running listed above would become massive disadvantages to a person with poor biomechanics and poor awareness of what they need to do to correct the faults. At their worst, these movements, done before you have the chance to correct them, could heighten your knee problems, and even cause injury. So while barefoot running is great, if you are currently suffering from knee pain, you would be wiser to prioritise squat training to improve the way you move, and save barefoot running until later. Once you know how to move and your knees have improved, however, it’s an exercise that’s well worth adding to your routine.