Many health and foot experts tout the benefits of barefoot walking and running, from Michael Warburton, a physical therapist and marathon runner, to the biomechanics researchers at Harvard University's Skeletal Biology Lab. However, the environment poses a host of hazards to unprotected treading. If you're looking to reap the benefits of barefoot running, a clean and well-maintained treadmill is a good place to begin. However, before using any exercise equipment, fully read its instructions and do not engage in any practices that go against its suggested usage.
Advantages of Barefoot Running
At least since 1960, when Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila won the first of multiple gold medals for his barefoot marathon victory in the Rome Olympics, barefoot running has piqued the interest of runners and athletes worldwide. According to research by Michael Warburton published in "Sport Science Journal," barefoot running appears linked to a reduced risk of ankle sprains and a reduced incidence of chronic leg injuries. A 2011 article in the "International Journal of Sports Medicine" also found that barefoot running requires less oxygen consumption than running with shoes.
If you want to try regular barefoot running on your treadmill, start gradually. Christopher Pauls and Len Kravitz, researchers at the University of New Mexico, recommend starting by doing other activities barefoot, such as walking around the house, gardening or walking in a grassy park. As you adjust to long periods of barefoot walking, begin running for short periods at a reduced intensity. If you are accustomed to running with shoes, your heel strikes may be painful at the beginning. Eventually, you will adjust your stride to a midfoot strike, no longer focusing so much force on the heel.
The Treadmill Factor
Running on a treadmill presents slightly different conditions from running on the ground. One advantage is the decreased risk of stepping on sharp objects. If you have a soft belt-style treadmill, it's likely that you can comfortably run at a greater intensity, with a greater impact to each stride. Pauls and Kravitz recommend intentionally decreasing the impact of your heel strikes, even if you have a soft belt treadmill, to avoid eventual strain or joint problems. Living Barefoot Magazine ran a comparative survey of treadmills in 2011, identifying the best equipment for barefoot runners. The major criteria for a good treadmill for barefoot runners were low heat production, a deck suspension system and a comfortable mat texture.
Chances are, if you work out at a gym, you won't be allowed to run barefoot; most institutions forbid it. While public hygiene plays a factor, your local gym's rules are also designed with safety in mind. If you sweat profusely and are new to barefoot running, you may lose foot traction, making injury more likely. Before starting a barefoot running routine, read over your treadmill's instructions for use. If some kind of footwear is advised, consider wearing socks with rubberized grips or minimal specialty shoes, designed to permit a barefoot stride.