Barefoot running has become increasingly popular over the last ten years. It’s a way to ensure you run with good form: short strides, landing on the ball of your foot. But it’s not always practical— outdoor surfaces can be filled with debris and hot in the summer.
That leads to the question of running indoors, specifically on a treadmill. In theory, it’s a great alternative. It’s a controlled and safe environment, but does it have the same effect as running barefoot outdoors?
In this article, we’ll explore running barefoot on a treadmill so you can figure out if it’ll work for you or not!
Can You Run Barefoot On a Treadmill?
The simple answer is yes, you can run barefoot on a treadmill.
However, it’s a good idea to assess your reasons for running barefoot on the treadmill first. Are you aiming to strengthen your foot muscles or improve your form? Do you just not feel like wearing shoes?
If you’ve got a particular reason for wanting to run barefoot on the treadmill, then it’s worth considering. But if barefoot running is just a novelty, we recommend running in your regular shoes.
Benefits of Running Barefoot On a Treadmill
If you do run barefoot on the treadmill, here are some benefits you can expect.
Better Running Form
Running barefoot encourages more of a midfoot or forefoot strike rather than a heel strike. While some runners are natural heel strikers, many heel strikers’ gaits are influenced by heavily cushioned heels built into many running shoes.
Remove the heavy heel cushioning of running shoes, and you should find that a natural midfoot or forefoot strike emerges. With the absence of any influence from shoes, your feet can move through a more natural gait cycle.
This can not only improve your running by helping you to push off faster, but it can also reduce your chance of injuries like plantar fasciitis and impact injuries.
Stronger Feet and Ankles
Running barefoot leaves no choice but for the foot muscles to get stronger. Instead of being supported by a shoe, your feet have to support themselves, which means they will get stronger the more you run barefoot.
Stronger foot muscles and ankles can improve running by helping you push off more powerfully. But they also lower your chance of injury, as they can withstand more impact force and support the foot better throughout the range of motion.
Increased Ground Feel & Sensory Feedback
Running barefoot gives you enhanced sensory feedback because your foot is in direct contact with the ground. It’s the opposite of wearing shoes where there are multiple layers of foam between your feet and the ground.
This can help to increase your awareness of the position of your feet and legs. This can lead to better coordination and balance as you run.
Improved Running Economy
Your running economy is the amount of oxygen you use while you run. Running barefoot can help you run with less muscle tension, which means you need less oxygen and can run more efficiently.
This might seem counterintuitive since you don’t have a cushioning layer between your feet and the ground. But in some cases, the heavy cushion under your foot can pull your foot down faster and make impact harder.
A lack of thick padding removes this problem. You’re lighter on your feet when you run barefoot, which can reduce the force on your foot and ankle joints when landing, even though the treadmill deck is already cushioned.
The treadmill surface is controlled and predictable. There’s almost no chance of being surprised by a rock, crack, curb, or other tripping obstacle that you might encounter outside. This makes using a treadmill a perfect place to get started with barefoot running.
Risks of Barefoot Treadmill Running
Although running barefoot on the treadmill has plenty of benefits, it also has some potential drawbacks.
Increased Risk of Injuries
If you’re used to running in shoes and switch to running barefoot, there’s a risk of getting injured. Your foot muscles and joints might not be strong enough when you first start.
You may be susceptible to stress injuries like metatarsalgia, shin splints, or tendonitis, until your feet build strength. And although the treadmill deck is cushioned, you might still feel pain in your joints in the beginning.
Luckily, you can prevent this by starting off with short runs and gradually increase your mileage over time.
The treadmill belt can heat up quickly due to friction. Be careful—this can easily lead to abrasions, blisters, or a more severe friction burn on your feet. If you start slowly, you can give your feet some time to get used to the gradual heating up of the belt.
Hygiene and Infection
Gym or hotel treadmills are likely to be hotbeds of germs and bacteria! You should probably only run barefoot on your own treadmill and make sure nobody else runs on it with dirty shoes.
Otherwise, you risk developing poor foot hygiene and increase your risk of developing infections, like ingrown toenails, athlete’s foot, and plantar warts.
Falling or Slipping
Running shoes come with a rubber outsole to help with traction. When you run barefoot, you might be more at risk of slipping and falling while running on the treadmill. This is particularly likely when accelerating or slowing down on the treadmill.
How to Start Running Barefoot On a Treadmill
Does running barefoot on a treadmill sound like something you want to try? Here’s how to get started.
Make Sure Your Treadmill Is Clean and Free of Dust
It’s a good idea to clean your treadmill belt beforehand. You want it to be free of dust, dirt, and as germ-free as possible to reduce your chances of fungal infections.
Also, make sure it’s free of debris that could hurt your feet or cause you to trip. You’ll need to run the belt through a full cycle and clean every part of it—not just the bit that’s showing when the treadmill is off.
Check That Your Feet Are Clean
As well as making sure the treadmill is clean, make sure your feet are clean before you get on! Our feet can just as easily transfer germs, dust, and dirt to the treadmill surface, so give them a quick wash before you start.
Warm Up Your Muscles
Just because you’re on the treadmill doesn’t mean you can skip your warm-up! Do 5 minutes of dynamic stretching and a slow 5 to 10-minute walk on the treadmill before upping the tempo and starting to run.
This will also give your feet time to adjust to the deck and the feeling of moving without shoes to support them.
Start small. Don’t attempt your first barefoot run on a long run—instead, ease your feet into it by starting with short sessions of 5 to 10 minutes each and a slower pace than usual.
This gives your feet plenty of time to strengthen and get used to not having support from your shoes. Build up slowly—5 to 10% per week—until you feel comfortable running barefoot on the treadmill without pain or discomfort.
Don’t Use an Incline at First
Adding an incline can complicate things and force you to change your natural stride. For the first few months, we recommend avoiding incline and using a flat deck. This will allow your feet enough time to get used to a forefoot strike.
Focus On Your Form
Barefoot running encourages a forefoot strike, which might initially feel strange, so paying attention to your form is essential. Make sure you’re landing lightly on the forefoot or midfoot and not on the heel.
Keep your back straight and engage your core. Ensure you’re not overstriding—your front foot should land underneath your pelvis, not stretched out in front of your body.
Listen to Your Body
It’s normal to feel some muscle soreness and stiffness when you first start running barefoot. Your feet will move differently to how it does with your shoes on, and it’s forced to support itself instead of relying on the support in your shoes.
But you might need to reassess if you feel sharp or persistent pain that doesn’t go away with rest or over time. You could need more time between barefoot runs to allow your muscles to recover, or you might need to adjust your intensity or lower your pace until your feet gain strength.
Monitor for Blisters and Calluses
Check your feet regularly for blisters or calluses. Don’t assume that you’ll feel any developing blisters—if you can catch them before they are painful or raw, you can treat them early and develop thicker skin.
If you’ve got calluses, examine your feet regularly to ensure they’re not beginning to crack or get too thick. File them down gently when necessary. Take care of your feet, and you’ll avoid any potential problems.
Add Foot-Specific Strengthening Exercises to Your Routine
While running barefoot on a treadmill will help strengthen your foot muscles, it’s also a good idea to add some foot-strengthening exercises. These are easy to do daily, no matter where you are.
Toe Curls or Towel Scrunches
Place a towel on the floor in front of you, with your toes on the edge of it. You can do this either sitting down or standing. Curl your toes inward and pull the towel towards you.
Continue to pull the towel towards you until you run out of towel. Then, push the towel away with your toes.
Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Lift your toes off the ground a little and spread them out as wide as possible, keeping your heel on the floor. Hold for a few seconds and then relax.
Repeat as many times as you like. If your balance is good enough, you can also do this exercise standing up.
Scatter a handful of marbles across the floor. Move from marble to marble, picking them up with your toes and placing them in a bag or bowl.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and engage your core to keep your balance. Lift your heels off the ground, rising up onto your toes. Hold for a second at the top, then slowly lower back to the ground.
You can do this one foot at a time for extra challenge. Or, you can do it on a step, which will allow you to get a deeper stretch in the calf and plantar fascia.
Ankle Inversions and Eversions
Sit flat on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. You want to have a resistance band hooked around an anchor point—a table leg or something similar—and the other end hooked around one of your feet.
Without moving your legs, turn your foot to push against the resistance. Then slowly turn it back to release the tension. Repeat as many times as you like, on both feet, and pushing both inward and outward against the resistance.
Toe Point and Flex
Sitting flat on the ground with your legs extended in front of you, point your toes like a ballet dancer. Hold for a second, then slowly return back to a neutral position. Then, flex your feet upwards, hold for a second, and return.
Stand with your feet flat on the ground. Try to lift your arch—without lifting your toes or heel off the ground. It’s harder than it seems! Hold for a few seconds and release.