By Rehan Iqbal
If you could travel back in time to the paleolithic era and beyond, you would find that your ancestors spent years barefoot. Researchers believe that the first attempts to create shoes occurred sometime around 7000 or 1550 BC. Those early shoes were made from reeds and various plants found in nature. They didn’t have cushioning, arch support, or removable insoles.
Footwear designs have come a long way since those days, but there are some runners who still swear to running barefoot. In fact, some of them have lined up for marathons without shoes and delivered impressive performances. In 1960, Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila won the Olympic Marathon without shoes. His competitors counted him out at the starting line, but he showed that his bare feet were serious competition for their advanced athletic shoes.
If barefoot running has its benefits, could some of those benefits help with flat feet? It’s an interesting question that we decided to answer for you. We’ll start with a look at the science behind barefoot running, in general, to understand why it has become so popular with some groups of runners and everyday people. Then we’ll turn our focus to barefoot running for flat feet.
What do you think when you see someone outside running in barefoot shoes that provide no added cushioning or arch support? Take that a step further. What would you think if you saw someone running down the street completely barefoot?
You may think it’s crazy to run without shoes, if not dangerous. Maybe you roll your eyes at those super thin minimalist shoes because they offer barely any protection for your feet. Perhaps your mind is already open to the concept of barefoot running or walking, but if not, we ask you to stop for a moment and just consider the modern science that speaks to some potential benefits for everyone.
Runners have been passing on advanced shoe science in favor of their own bare feet for many years. It may seem like a gimmick or trend, but it’s been around long enough to escape the fad label. It’s also backed by enough scientific research to safely say it’s not going away anytime soon.
Barefoot running is more than a fad, but what does the research say? Let’s look at what researchers have found when looking into barefoot running for injury prevention because that’s a great benefit for everyone with flat feet.
Does Running Barefoot Prevent Injuries?
In a retrospective study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2012, researchers compared the injury rates between collegiate cross-country team members who ran primarily with a forefoot strike or rearfoot strike. One interesting observation in the study was that those running without shoes or with minimal shoe support were 2.6 times less likely to experience a severe injury.
Additional research published as recently as 2020 shows that running barefoot is beneficial for injury prevention, especially for people who start running barefoot in childhood. Some studies have found that running shoes change the way a body moves, and those changes can weaken the foot. That results in a higher chance of injury.
You can see the difference in how you walk or run barefoot by going somewhere that allows you to move without stepping on something sharp or hot. Record yourself walking or running with your favorite shoes and then barefoot. Notice the difference in your gait, pronation, and overall stride pattern. Whether you have flat feet or not, some researchers and professional runners believe that shoes with too much padding and support may cause those changes in gait and may increase your risk of injury.
Another study published in 2015 highlighted the critical interaction between small foot muscles, large foot muscles, and the neural connections that allow the brain to coordinate those muscles. When the feedback loop between those muscles is interrupted, it increases the risk for overuse injuries like plantar fasciitis and shin splints.
Researchers identified modern footwear as one of the primary factors that can break those feedback loops. They state that the connection between the body and the surrounding environment is broken, preventing the smaller foot muscles from collecting information and passing it to the larger muscles of the lower body.
The result is overcompensation of the larger muscles. That added strain can lead to more shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and other overuse injuries.
While there is a growing body of evidence that speaks to the advantages of running barefoot, it’s important to keep safety in mind. Think about the terrain where you walk or run and protect your feet accordingly. Minimalistic barefoot running shoes are widely available if you want to see if they might help your flat feet.
What About Arch Support? Do You Really Need It?
This is where we start speaking specifically about the benefits of barefoot running for flat feet. If you have flat feet, you don’t have the high arches that other people enjoy. That may lead to a variety of problems, including chronic pain and injuries like plantar fasciitis and shin splints. Some of the most common solutions for flat foot injuries include orthotics that increase arch support and motion control footwear.
Those treatments do help many people remain comfortable and pain-free, but there is some research that highlights the benefits of taking footwear to the minimum. One study found that running in minimalist shoes strengthens the foot and can create arches that are stiffer, stronger, and higher.
When researchers spent 188 hours reading more than 150 scientific studies to study the impact of shoes offering arch support, the results were interesting. They found that modern running shoes provided no advantages for injury prevention and minimal improvements in running economy. The biggest shoe advantages were in the treatment and recovery category, but the benefits were specific to orthotics, shock-absorbing insoles, and neutral shoes with cushioning.
They concluded that shoes with arch support are mostly beneficial during recovery and aren’t game changers for training. They recommended runners not invest in arch support shoes unless recommended by a podiatrist.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t need arch support. That’s a personal determination that only a trained podiatrist or medical doctor can make after looking at your feet in person. What you can take away from this research is the idea that arch support shoes may not make a substantial difference in comfort, performance, or injury prevention when you’re active. That leaves the door open to trying other things, like barefoot training.
That leads us to barefoot running and flat feet. Are there any real advantages? We have some insight to help you make that determination along with your podiatrist.
Barefoot Running to Fix Flat Feet – Does It Work?
Most research studies focused on barefoot running fail to address the impact on flat feet. That means we have less official information and cannot say with certainty whether running without shoes is a solution for those with flat feet. What we do know is that online running forums are filled with anecdotal stories in support of barefoot running for flat feet.
What we do have from researchers to this point includes the following observations:
If you believe the research in support of running barefoot in general, then you can argue that the same benefits are available to people with flat feet. The question is whether to take it a step further and state that running without shoes or in minimalist barefoot running shoes can help with flat feet.
The evidence that running without shoes or in minimalist shoes can build stronger arches is powerful. For someone with little to no foot arch, the idea of building a more substantial arch and stronger foot muscles is beneficial. The strength of the foot muscles is important because those muscles are designed to absorb shock before it hits the ankles, calves, knees, and lower back.
Should You Start Barefoot Running to Help Flat Feet?
There are some potential benefits for anyone with flat feet, but it’s also important to take caution when you start exploring barefoot walking or running. When Abebe Bikila stepped up to the starting line of the Olympics barefoot, he had years of barefoot training behind him. He lived his life barefoot, including putting in many hours of aggressive training without shoes.
If you’re accustomed to wearing shoes, then it takes time to adjust to minimalistic shoes or barefoot activity. You also need to train yourself to pay close attention to the terrain so that you don’t step on sharp objects or other hazards. Some environments are more suitable for barefoot running or walking than others, so caution is needed.
If you have flat feet and wonder if running without shoes can help avoid chronic pain or repeat rounds of plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and other injuries, start slow. Move around your home without shoes more often, and then take it outside. You may feel more comfortable with minimalistic shoes at first, since they provide a thin layer of separation between your feet and the ground.
You should also consider talking to a podiatrist about barefoot running and other treatment options for your flat feet. A trained professional can assess your feet, watch your gait, and help you create a personalized treatment plan that works over time.