Proponents of this training method note that running barefoot prevents you from landing on your heels— which has been shown to produce more force on joints than landing on the balls of your feet (which happens naturally when you’re sans shoes). According to a 2010 study conducted by Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., the impact of a forefoot strike is roughly one-third of that resulting from a heel strike, therefore making barefoot running a seemingly better choice for those experiencing repetitive stress injuries from too much high-impact activity. And a 2009 study published in The Journal of Injury, Function and Rehabilitation showed that running with sneakers featuring increased heel cushioning and mid-arch padding led to a 38 percent greater torque on knees than did barefoot running. But the barefoot technique isn’t just about canning kicks. “It’s about regaining presence in your running and body,” says Ted McDonald, Seattle-based barefoot running coach and president of the Luna Sandal Company. “It’s about learning how to move again.” To master such kinesthetic awareness, McDonald suggests taking off your shoes, walking and then trotting on hard, fairly smooth surfaces. “Try to feel a gentle, forefoot-centric landing, and keep it silent and smooth, like a cat,” he says. As with ChiRunning, the barefoot technique involves and encourages proper postural alignment and a quicker cadence. “It’s nearly impossible to over-stride with bare feet,” McDonald says.
Fast-track tip: Start slowly! “Dramatically decrease your mileage, and slowly work up in 3 percent to 4 percent weekly increments over a number of months to get back to your previous mileage,” Ferber says. To ease the transition, try a minimalist shoe like the Altra Intuition ($99; altrazerodrop.com). The wide toe-box mimics barefoot “spread,” and the thin “zero-drop” soles support and protect you from terrain without lifting your heels. You’ll still have to take your new style in stride and pace yourself, however, and even the Altra shoebox features take-it-slow guidelines.
Pros: Less impact on joints and minimal equipment needed. (You can literally go barefoot!)
Cons: If you have lingering foot or ankle problems, like torn ligaments, you may not be able to tolerate it. What’s more, you could be trading one injury for another, warns Ferber. “You need to have strong ankles and calves to go barefoot,” he says. “There may be less impact on knees, for example, but a much greater load on your Achilles tendons.”