Coach Clem says barefoot running significantly improves your balance
© Madison Garner

5 benefits of barefoot running

Looking to shake up your running routine? Coach Clem shares his tips on ditching shoes and the perks that come with barefoot running
Written by Charlie Allenby
6 min readPublished on
When Philippides ran from Athens to Sparta at the end of the Battle of Marathon to share the news of the Greek victory over Persia, he didn’t do it wearing a pair of carbon-plated kicks. A couple of millennia before the advent of zero drop shoes and the ‘natural running’ movement, the literal legend of long-distance running was doing his thing barefoot, proving that you don’t need lightweight foam and a responsive midsole to go the distance.
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Today, the modern-day barefoot running movement is picking up a head of steam. Brands such as Vivobarefoot and Merrell are pioneering ‘barefoot’ collections, simulating the experience of running sole-free while retaining some of the protective properties of shoes.
My running has become more efficient
Coach Clem
But running barefoot is not just for elite runners. Tom ‘Coach Clem’ Cleminson was a keen runner before a series of impact injuries caused by playing rugby left him in pain every time he went for a jog. After a few years away from running, he started looking into it again, which is when he discovered barefoot running.
“I started to understand the science behind it,” he explains. “The easiest way to think about it is that your foot is the stable base for the body. When you're running, your body needs to absorb at least two times your bodyweight in shock. The arches of the foot were initially designed to absorb that shock. When you start wearing shoes, it changes your gait and your stride, so you overstride and strike the heel instead. It was that shock that was travelling up into my knees and hips. It wasn't my knees that were the issue; it was the shock that was being transferred through running in normal shoes.”
When running, your body needs to absorb a lot of shock

When running, your body needs to absorb a lot of shock

© Madison Garner

Three years later and Clem has just completed his first half marathon barefoot, and his injuries have remained firmly in the past. He warns that it’s not as simple as switching your shoes and continuing your current training load though: “When you're born, you're not straight into walking – there's a lot of learning that has to be done. You have to do the same thing with barefoot running; if you immediately transferred over, you'd still have that longer stride, you'd still be landing on the heel of your foot and that shock is still going to transfer but without the cushioning of a normal shoe.” He recommends exposing yourself gradually, starting with walking barefoot or in barefoot shoes, and building up to running.
Clem adds that it’s worth persevering, and has noticed numerous benefits of barefoot running beyond a lack of knee pain. Here, he shares the improvements he’s noticed on his barefoot journey.

1. Improved foot strength

While you might not have thought about gains in the foot department, having a strong grounding will have a knock-on effect in a whole host of other ways (more on these below). “A study from the University of Liverpool found that after six months of being barefoot in daily activities, foot strength increased by about 50%,” says Clem. The research added that this improved strength “may aid healthy balance and gait”.

2. Better running form

Running barefoot can encourage landing on your foot’s arch, preventing heel striking and the injuries associated with it. But Clem believes the improvements in his running form haven’t ended there. “My running has become more efficient. My stride has completely changed and my cadence – the amount of times my foot hits the floor in a minute – is way up. My strides are much shorter and it's much more of a falling forward, relaxed style.”

3. Boosted flexibility

“The weirdest thing I noticed when I started walking in barefoot shoes was my feet actually grew by about half a size-to-a-size,” says Clem. He puts this down to his feet’s ligaments and tendons relaxing as they had room to expand outside of the constraints of a normal shoe while being massaged by sticks and twigs underfoot. And because of how these are connected to the rest of the lower body, the benefits don’t just stop at the ankle. “My whole flexibility is improved hugely just from the ligaments and tendons on the foot relaxing.”

4. Better balance

Coach Clem noticed significantly better balance after barefoot running

Coach Clem noticed significantly better balance after barefoot running

© Madison Garner

While a lot of benefits of barefoot running take time to develop, Clem says that there’s one that you’ll notice from day one – better balance. “My balance just got infinitely better,” he explains. “When it came to barbell work, squats, deadlifts, general running, day-to-day movement, it all of a sudden became a lot easier.”
He says that one way of simulating this is standing on two feet barefoot, jumping forwards and landing on one foot. “Notice how stable your ankle and foot are on landing and how little maneuvering you have to do to find stability. Then, get a yoga mat, fold it over a couple of times to represent the cushion on the bottom of the shoe and do the same thing, and see the amount of extra stabilisation you've got to do to be able to find balance.”

5. A deeper connection to the environment

While the thought of walking around barefoot might bring to mind blisters, cuts and pain, Clem says that the opposite is true: “If you live somewhere with green grass and no glass, then getting out in fields and wandering around barefoot is part of the experience. You just pick up on so much more about your environment – it really connects you with what you're doing.”
In fact, he says that in cities his feet can now “feel bored” because they’ve become used to picking up on all the micro-changes in the environment. “Walking down the street, all of a sudden you can feel the texture of guttering, or if you're in a trail, the twigs underfoot and the difference between soil, leaves, and gravel. You just become much more a part of the environment.”