By Simon Gould
Barefoot or minimalist running has been gaining in popularity over the past few years. Runners are getting back to nature and enjoying the feeling of the freedom it gives. The feet are designed to run this way, humans have been doing it for thousands of years without any problems. The consensus is mixed as to whether there are benefits or risks.
Barefoot running has always been practised over the years in Africa. It is believed the very first marathon runner named Pheidippides, ran barefoot. In the US there is a Barefoot Runners Society that has over 1,500 members. You can now buy minimalist footwear* designed for barefoot runners to prevent any debris like stones hurting the feet.
Benefits of barefoot running on a treadmill
As I’ve mentioned this natural running is becoming increasingly popular that websites have been built around the practise. When running barefoot you are able to achieve greater balance. Your muscles in your feet awaken to support your new posture and the ground beneath you as you run. They call it running unshod (without shoes).
The calf muscles in particular get a good workout and the achilles tendon is stretched as it doesn’t have shoes that encourage a heel strike. Because of this, barefoot running has been shown to have less impact peak when running on a treadmill (source). This means it’s better for your knees and other joints.
Disadvantages of barefoot running
Many disadvantages are the opposite of the benefits. Where the barefoot runners have less impact on their joints due to going barefoot, the running shoe wearers have more impact. This is because the shoes encourage a heel strike and the running gait compensates for this. The muscles needed for the support of the feet can atrophy because they’re not being used as much in barefoot running as when running shoes are on.
Running with shoes means you can run on any surface and be confident that any stones or glass will not injure and hurt you. You don’t have to constantly look down to check you’re not about to land on any debris. If it’s very cold your feet are protected with running shoes. You’re not going to tread on ice and your feet aren’t going to freeze and suffer frostbite.
Because we’re used to wearing shoes in our daily lives the skin on the bottom of our feet is quite tender. We’re not used to running on hard surfaces connected with only our skin. Because of this at the beginning of running barefoot you may get some blisters until calluses form. The recommendation is to run barefoot sparingly at first until your feet get used to it.
Questions about running barefoot on a treadmill
Will I get blisters from the treadmill?
Running barefoot on a treadmill will give you blisters very quickly. You’re running against an opposing force and the surface of a treadmill is rough. Every time your foot lands there is friction on your feet. Sometimes they can occur within a mile or more. Your feet will get used to it over time and they’ll be less common.
Can you walk or run on a treadmill with socks?
Yes, although you may still get blisters at first. But it’s just life barefoot running otherwise. Without the support of shoes you will be running in a true biomechanical way. Your socks will definitely wear out quickly. Take care at first in case your socks are slippery on the deck. Depending on the way you run your socks may move about.
Can you run barefoot on a curved treadmill?
Curved treadmills don’t use a motor so they are powered by the runner. You can run barefoot on them and while you are less likely to get blisters so quickly. You will still get them at first. There is still heat generated by your foot landing on the surface which encourages blisters to form. Other than that, barefoot running on a curved treadmill is just like a motorized treadmill.
3 Possible injuries from running barefoot on a treadmill
We spend a lot of our lives in footwear. Our feet have adapted to it and so have the muscles in our feet. Suddenly exercising without footwear may make us susceptible to certain injuries. Many of these can be alleviated by gradually introducing barefoot running into our routines. You may want to consult a podiatrist before trying your new way of exercising on a treadmill.
1. Bone damage – Research found that bone damage occurred in a limited group of runners who started running barefoot. It was almost enough to cause a stress fracture. The research was done in experienced runners. It concluded that runners who wanted to go barefoot should transition slowly and low in intensity.
2. Achilles tendinitis – This is an overuse injury of the tendon at the back of the ankle. It manifests itself in the beginning as a mild ache at the back of the lower leg. Running barefoot uses the tendon more than with shoes, although you can still get the problem with running shoes. The advice is to start gradually and seek medical help if the pain is severe.
3. Calf strain – Another injury that can occur with running shoes as well. This is actually a tear of the muscle and you’ll feel pain where the calf is. The muscle gets a lot of use when running especially when you’re unshod. The treatment is to stop running for several weeks depending on how bad the tear is. See a professional to diagnose this one.
With every problem I’ve listed above, the advice is to start gradually and low in intensity. This way you should be able to start barefoot running on a treadmill with no issues. Try running without shoes for 10 minutes at first and build from there. Your feet will adapt and get stronger as a result. Your soles will also get used to the friction and heat generated by the belt.
Running barefoot on a treadmill might sound like a great way to prepare yourself for running barefoot outside. However the treadmill doesn’t fully prepare you for the sensation. The belt is constantly flat so, like running on shoes, you may get overuse injuries and not feel the benefit you would have running outside.
With the belt moving under your feet instead of you propelling yourself forward, your feet may get friction burns and start heating up. This is reported to have happened but isn’t too bad to stop people from running on the treadmill barefoot. So it’s ok to run barefoot on a treadmill if you want to. It’s just not in the spirit of the true barefoot or natural running narrative.
Thinking of buying a treadmill? Here’s my favorite, I always recommend it when asked*