Running is a great way to get in shape and improve your overall health. An emerging trend is running barefoot (or in minimalist shoes). But, is running barefoot on a treadmill OK? There are several things to consider if you want to go shoeless on a treadmill.
Barefoot treadmill running has a few risks associated with it. One potential downfall is damage to the sole of the foot. The treadmill can cause blisters from the friction or mild burns from the treadmill deck heating up – both of which can be uncomfortable and potentially disrupt your running program.
However, with the right precautions, there are also several benefits to running barefoot that you can discover. We will look at some of the benefits, disadvantages, and safety concerns, and answer some commonly asked questions about running barefoot on a treadmill below.
- What Are The Differences Between Running Barefoot on a Treadmill or With Shoes?
- What Are The Benefits of Running Barefoot on a Treadmill?
- Running Barefoot on a Treadmill Safety Tips
- Disadvantages of Barefoot Running on a Treadmill
- Frequently Asked Questions
What Are The Differences Between Running Barefoot on a Treadmill or With Shoes?
One of the main differences between barefoot and shod running is how it changes the running gait and the foot strike. This is a function of several factors which we will list below, but it is very interesting. Running on a treadmill naturally shortens a runner’s gait which emulates the change when running barefoot.
In addition to that, there are several other differences as well. One 2012 study by the Strength and Conditioning Journal looked at this exact question due to the increase in popularity of barefoot running. We will cover a few of the key takeaways on the differences between the two modalities of running below.
Foot Strike and Initial Contact
Running barefoot utilizes more of a midfoot to forefoot foot strike instead of a heel strike which is common when wearing shoes. This is part of the reason for the shorter gait – a midfoot or forefoot strike requires the foot to be closer to the body and the leg in a more upright position.
This has other benefits as well. Initial impact forces are less and there are reports of lower peak torques at the hip, knee, and ankle. This supports the claim many barefoot runners make that running barefoot is better for the body and results in fewer injuries.
Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense movement and location in space. This is important when running because the feedback from the foot can provide corrective signals to the brain. If the foot lands off, the next footstrike can be corrected due to that feedback.
This proprioceptive feedback comes from the muscles within the foot itself. These muscles have to compensate for not having a shoe to protect the foot, and therefore provide the feedback but also strengthen over time. This is another benefit of running barefoot that we will cover in more depth below.
With a shoe, it’s very difficult to get the same feedback due to the protective nature of the shoe and the fact that it constricts the foot.
Protection of the Foot
When running barefoot, one of the drawbacks is that there is no protection for the foot. When running on a treadmill this can be an issue, but it is less of an issue than running outside. Runners without shoes on the road can encounter various hazards that can be dangerous; glass, sharp rocks, needles, and a host of other manmade or natural things that can harm the foot.
Our feet were made to be tough. The foot sole can withstand abrasive loads of more than 600% greater than elsewhere on our bodies before feeling the same pain response, but there is still a limit.
Surprisingly, running barefoot actually helps reduce the perceived exertion of the runner. People feel like it is easier to run barefoot than with shoes. And this is supported by science. Heart rates of barefoot runners are lower than when they run shod.
Another study found that oxygen costs are 5.7% lower when running barefoot vs shod. This advantage of barefoot running was found both on a treadmill and overground. This is an amazing statistic.
What Are The Benefits of Running Barefoot on a Treadmill?
Running barefoot has several benefits including a lower rate of perceived exertion, reduced heart rate, lower oxygen cost, better proprioceptive feedback, strengthening of foot and ankle muscles, improved circulation, stress relief, improved posture, and potentially fewer injuries.
While all of these benefits won’t necessarily be the same for everyone, many people will experience most of these benefits once they get into the groove of running barefoot. We discussed the first few above in the differences between running barefoot and with shoes, but we’ll cover the remaining benefits here:
- Improved balance and coordination
- Stronger foot and ankle muscles
- Improved circulation
- Stress relief
- Improved posture
- Pain relief and potentially fewer injuries
We will break these down in more detail below, as well as provide some scientific backup to support our statements.
1./ Improve Stability, Balance, and Proprioceptive Feedback
Running barefoot can help improve balance and coordination by allowing the runner to have a better connection with the surface of the treadmill. This allows the runner to feel exactly where their foot is coming down and make minor adjustments to make sure they are landing flat and balanced instead of on one side or another.
These minor adjustments and connections with the treadmill can help the runner have a more solid and stable base with each foot strike.
2/ Stronger Muscles in the Foot and Ankle
Running barefoot can help strengthen the muscles in the foot and ankle by making them work harder. Since there is no extra cushioning from a shoe, the muscles have to work harder to absorb the impact of each foot strike.
This can lead to stronger muscles in the foot and ankle over time. Specifically, due to the flatter nature of the foot when the foot strike occurs, the Achilles tendon and calf muscles are stressed more which causes them to get stronger.
3/ Improved Circulation
Without a constricting shoe, there is improved circulation in the feet when running. This is likely part of the reason that the perceived exertion of running barefoot is less. Additionally, without shoes, the feet are lighter and freer.
4/ Stress Relief
As discussed above, without a shoe the foot tends to land on the midfoot or forefoot which helps spread the forces out over the entire foot. The foot can widen as it lands and reduce any stress points that normally accompany running. At the same time, the foot muscles need to work harder and get stronger. Stronger feet help reduce the shock on the feet and legs as well.
On each foot strike, the forces can equal 5x the bodyweight of a person.
This force needs to be absorbed by the foot, ankle, knee, and hip which can cause wear and tear over time. The wider the surface area of the foot to help take these forces the better it will hold up over time.
5/ Improved Posture
Your posture can improve by running barefoot because you will naturally start to run more upright. When you are running with shoes, it is easy to get into a hunched-over position due to extending your leg too far forward. This can lead to back pain and other issues over time.
By running barefoot, and with a shorter gait, you will be forced to engage your core muscles more to stay upright. This can help improve posture over time.
6/ Pain Relief and Potential for Fewer Injuries
The force reduction at the foot strike due to barefoot running can help reduce the aches and pains that sometimes accompany running. Hip pain, knee pain, lower back pain, and ankle pain can be relieved to a certain extent by a better running posture.
Additionally, when running on a treadmill, these aches and pains can be lessened due to the shock absorption properties of the treadmill itself. Additionally, the increased strength and musculature of the foot can help ward off nagging issues that may creep up.
Running Barefoot on a Treadmill Safety Tips
Now that we’ve talked about the differences between barefoot and shod running on the treadmill, and the benefits, it’s time to look at some safety tips and considerations for those who want to get into barefoot running on their treadmill.
The biggest concerns for barefoot runners on a treadmill are related to abrasion or issues on the sole of the feet. As the feet strike the treadmill belt, there can be damage done to the foot; especially for those who are not accustomed to running barefoot on a treadmill.
One major concern is blisters. The friction between the belt and the foot can cause blisters over time until the sole gets accustomed to the work. One contributing factor is that running on a treadmill is very repetitive. Each foot strike is very similar to the next.
There are no turns, or elevation changes (curbs, branches, potholes, etc) so the consistency can wear on certain parts of the foot. If you tend to land on one side of the foot or the other, the thousands of similar reps on a treadmill can cause an issue to that spot on the foot.
Similar to the above, the abrasion from the treadmill belt can cause burns on the feet. In addition to the abrasion, the treadmill deck can heat up from use – especially on longer runs – and cause actual burns to the feet.
This may not be immediately noticed due to the slow nature of the treadmill deck heating, so it’s recommended to check the deck every so often to make sure it isn’t getting too hot.
Foot Landing Off of The Belt
Another concern can be foot placement. Without shoes, there is no protection for the feet. If the foot lands mostly on the belt, but partly on the side of the deck that doesn’t move, this can twist the foot or hurt one of the toes due to the difference between the motion of the belt and the stationary nature of the side rail.
If that happens, it can be dangerous to the runner as well. Losing one’s balance and falling is a possibility.
Disadvantages of Barefoot Running on a Treadmill
Barefoot running, while increasing in popularity, does have some downsides. Some of these disadvantages that be made worse by using a treadmill barefoot as well. We’ll touch on a few of the disadvantages to barefoot running as well as treadmill usage in general in this section.
Many of these are similar to the article I wrote on the disadvantages of running on a treadmill in general.
One thing to think about when primarily using a treadmill for running – barefoot or shod – is the difference in muscle activation on a treadmill. While treadmill running uses many of the same muscles as regular running, the glutes and hamstrings are not as engaged which can lead to muscle imbalances.
This is due to the belt moving beneath the runner instead of the legs having to actively push the body forward. This is easily remediated by running outside as well or simply doing some cross-training work like lunges, squats, or Romanian deadlifts to help strengthen the hamstrings, glutes, and posterior chain.
There are also several differences in training between the treadmill and the road. One difference is that people often think of the treadmill as easier than running on the road. This is due to the reason stated above – the belt moves beneath the runner instead of the runner having to push themselves.
This can be slightly mitigated by adding a 1%-2% incline to the treadmill. This will more accurately represent road running and add a bit of challenge to the workout.
Another difference is that you can only run straight. The inability to turn can reduce overall agility and, again, cause repetitive stresses or strains on the body since it is doing the same thing repeatedly over time.
Treadmills can also limit speed (depending on the treadmill). If you’re a fast runner, and you want to incorporate some interval training barefoot, but your treadmill isn’t the fastest, you may not be able to get up to top speeds. Many home or residential treadmills only go up to 10mph or 12mph.
Let’s be honest, treadmills can be boring. Running on a treadmill for an hour, staring at the wall in front of you, isn’t glamorous. Watching TV, trying to read something, or entertaining yourself with music can help, but it isn’t as exciting as watching the world go by outside.
This leads me to my next disadvantage: feeling weird running on a treadmill.
Can Cause Motion Type Sickness
Running on a treadmill can cause a kind of motion sickness in some people. It can also make people feel off-balance or unsteady. This is likely due to the lack of movement in the field of vision while running on a treadmill. This goes back to our new favorite word: proprioception.
This is another reason why some people prefer to run outside: they don’t have to worry about feeling sick from the treadmill motion.
Some people also find that they get dizzy when they stop running on the treadmill, especially if they’ve been running for a long time. This is because the body is used to the forward motion and, when it stops suddenly, it can take a minute to adjust. Generally, a good cool-down period and slowing the pace down gradually can help eliminate this feeling.
Now that we’ve covered the basics in detail, let’s look at a few more questions that regularly come up when talking about whether or not running on a treadmill barefoot is a good idea.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are a few of the frequently asked questions that come up when discussing barefoot treadmill running and treadmill running in general.
Can You Get Injured Running Barefoot on a Treadmill?
Just like with any type of running, there is always a chance of injury. However, because you are not landing hard on your heels with each step, the risk of injury is reduced.
It is always a good idea to warm up before running, whether on a treadmill or outside. This will help reduce the risk of injury by preparing your muscles for the workout. Many people feel like running barefoot is a way to help reduce the chance of being injured since it is a more natural way to run than with shoes.
Is It Better to Run Outside or On a Treadmill?
There are pros and cons to both running outside and on a treadmill. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference. Some people prefer the stability and predictability of the treadmill, while others prefer the fresh air and scenery of outdoor running.
It also depends on your training goals. If you’re training for a marathon, it may be better to run outside primarily since the marathon will likely be outside. If you just want to get fit, shed some pounds, and get healthier, a treadmill is a great option.
Heck, even walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day can have some great health benefits.
How Can I Make My Treadmill Running More Like Outdoor Running?
There are a few things you can do to make your treadmill running more like outdoor running. First, try to find a treadmill that allows you to run at different speeds. This will help you replicate the hills and flats of outdoor running. The ability to add 1% or 2% incline is also said to accurately mimic outdoor running.
What Are Some of the Differences Between Running on a Treadmill and Running on the Road?
Some of the differences between running on a treadmill and running on the road include the surface, impact, weather, and motivation. When running on a treadmill, you are running on a cushioned belt that is easy on your joints.
The weather can be a factor when running outside. If it is too hot or cold, it can be difficult to motivate yourself to go for a run. With a treadmill, that usually isn’t a concern. It’s always 72 and dry inside your home.
Finally, some people find it more motivating to run outside because they can explore new scenery and get fresh air.
What About Minimalist Shoes on Treadmill?
Minimalist shoes are shoes that try to mimic the feel of running barefoot. They are becoming more and more popular as people realize the benefits of running barefoot. Brands like Vibram FiveFingers have become quite popular in recent years.
Some people do choose to run on a treadmill in minimalist shoes, but it isn’t recommended for beginners. If you are going to try it, start slowly and be careful not to overdo it. As with anything, there is a learning curve and it takes time for your body to adjust. If you want to go the shod route, we put together a list of the best treadmill running shoes you can check out here.
Running barefoot on a treadmill can have some great benefits, including improved form and foot health. It is important to start slowly and be careful not to overdo it. Make sure you are doing good warm-ups and cool-downs and periodically checking your feet for signs of issues when you first start.
Once you get into it, however, you may find that you can do more and go farther due to the reduced oxygen requirements and lower perceived effort! That is a very motivating thing.