Barefoot running, also called “natural running”, is the act of running without footwear. Throughout human history, running barefoot was the natural way to run, and cultures such as the Tarahumara people in Mexico still practice it today. Barefoot running became popular in the latter half of the 20th century, as notable Olympic runners such as Abebe Bikila, Bruce Tulloh, and Zola Budd participated barefoot.
Scientific research into the practice of running barefoot has not reached a clear consensus regarding its risks or its benefits. While shoes provide necessary foot protection from cuts, bruises, and the weather, proponents of barefoot running argue that it offers benefits and is healthier for the feet by reducing the risk of chronic injuries (notably repetitive stress injuries) due to the impact of heel striking in padded running shoes.
To provide the benefits of both running barefoot and shod, different varieties of barefoot-inspired footwear are available, including thin-soled and flexible shoes such as traditional moccasins and huaraches, and modern footwear like Vibram FiveFingers and Vivobarefoot. Running almost barefoot in thin-soled shoes may be termed minimalist running.
Throughout most of human history, running was performed while barefoot or in thin-soled shoes such as moccasins. This practice continues today in Kenya and among the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico. Historians believe that the runners of Ancient Greece ran barefoot. According to legend, Pheidippides, the first marathoner, ran from Athens to Sparta in less than 36 hours. After the Battle of Marathon, it is said he ran straight from the battlefield to Athens to inform the Athenians of the Greek victory over Persia.
Modern barefoot running first rose to prominence in 1960, when Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia won the Olympic marathon in Rome barefoot after discovering that Adidas, the Olympic shoe supplier, had run out of shoes in his size. He was in pain because he had received shoes that were too small, so he decided to simply run barefoot; Bikila had trained running barefoot prior to the Olympics. He would go on to defend his Olympic title four years later in Tokyo while wearing shoes and setting a new world record.
During the 1980s, a South African runner, Zola Budd, became known for her barefoot running style as well as training and racing barefoot. She won the 1985 and 1986 IAAF World Cross Country Championships and competed in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Kenyan runner Tegla Loroupe began running barefoot 10 km (6.2 mi) to and from school every day at the age of seven. She performed well in contests at school, and in 1988, won a prestigious cross country barefoot race. She went on to compete, both barefoot and shod, in several international competitions, marathons, and half-marathons. She won the Goodwill Games over 10,000 metres, barefoot, and was the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon in 1994, winning again in 1998.
In the early 21st century, barefoot running has gained a small yet significant following on the fringe of the larger running community. Organizers of the 2010 New York City Marathon saw an increase in the number of barefoot runners participating in the event. The practice saw a surge in popularity after the 2009 publication of Christopher McDougall‘s book, Born to Run, promoting the practice. In the United States, the Barefoot Runners Society was founded in November 2009 as a national club for unshod runners. By November 2010, the organization claimed 1,345 members, nearly double the 680 members it had when it was founded.
One barefoot runner, Rick Roeber, has been running barefoot since 2003, and has run more than 50 marathons, 2 ultra-marathons of 40 miles, and over 17,000 miles (27,359 km) all barefoot. Other prominent barefoot runners include Ken Bob Saxton, known as the “godfather of barefoot running”, and Todd Byers, a barefoot marathon runner from Seattle who has run over 100 marathons barefoot. On December 8, 2006, Nico Surings of Eindhoven, Netherlands, became the fastest person to run 100 meters (328 feet) on ice while barefoot, completing the task in 17.35 seconds. And on December 12, 2010, the Barefoot Runners of India Foundation (BRIF) organised a 21 km (13 mi) barefoot half-marathon at Kharghar near the Indian city of Mumbai. The run had 306 participants.
In 2011, the United States Air Force began development of a program to support barefoot or minimalist running in its ranks. One of the leaders of the program was Lieutenant Colonel Mark Cucuzzella, who won the 2011 United States Air Force Marathon in a time of 2:38:48 while wearing minimalist running shoes.
On April 1, 2012, runner Rae Heim embarked on a 3,000-plus mile barefoot run from Boston, Massachusetts to Manhattan Beach, California. She is raising money for a Tennessee-based organization, Soles4Souls, who will deliver one pair of shoes to needy children for each dollar raised by Heim. And on June 23, 2012, Robert Knowles, of Brisbane, Australia, set two Guinness World Records for both the Fastest 100km Barefoot and the Longest Distance Run Barefoot in 24 Hours, as part of the Sri Chinmoy Sydney 24 Hour Race. He logged 166.444km (103 miles), or 416 laps on the Blacktown International Sportspark track, barefoot.