Barefoot Running: The Best Working-Memory Workout?

Have you heard the news?  Barefoot running may be better for brain-training than Lumonsity.

Neuroscience brain-training games, like Lumonsity are suppose to boost working-memory, but are also a big scam as recent reports reveal that such brain-training games are highly ineffective, according to Simon Makin who wrote about the matter in Scientific American. He states that brain-training games look appealing based on the notion that certain brain-training games improve working-memory with more practice.  Yet, new reports show that brain-training games are over-hyped and under-studied as few reputable scientists have yet to find evidence backing substantive cognitive (learning) benefits of such forms of brain-training.

However, the gist of new reports show that there is more to running barefoot than just improved biomechanics; it’s great for brain-training!


Barefoot Running: The Best Working-Memory Workout?

A new study found that going barefoot offers real cognitive benefits. Alloway et al. 2016, compared the effects of barefoot vs shoe running on working-memory performance. The researchers noted that running in general improves working-memory and speeds mental processing and reasoning, however the researchers were interested to find out if going barefoot would add any farther cognitive enhancements.

For one, the researchers purported that running barefoot would speed cognitive processing due to greater focus and attention in an attempt to avoid stepping on something painful.

After the running session, participants completed a series of route planning working-memory tests. The runners who ran barefoot had the biggest cognitive benefits than the shod runners. So what’s the link between running barefoot and improved cognitive abilities?

Because the nerves in the feet are supremely stimulated when running without shoes, the motor area of the brain is highly stimulated too whereby barefoot running improves motor performance and movement control, variables related to better working-memory. The researchers reasoned that increased working-memory observed in the barefoot runners can be attributed to the combination of running barefoot while route planning and focusing attention over a long period of time. The researchers noted that running barefoot usually requires more attention and route planning than running in shoes.

  • You need working- memory for planning and recalling movement strategies –when you run barefoot. For example, you’ll feel that it hurts to land on your heel (heel strike), and instead you are more adept to land on your forefoot to avoid high impacts when you run barefoot. As a result, you plan foot movements accordingly. Because of this, the strength of one’s working-memory may depend, in part, on how well the plantar (soles of the foot) nerves are stimulated.

So, since barefoot running is mentally engaging, it wouldn’t hurt to try it because it seems to be a good utility that boost’s learning. The data also implies that going barefoot could helpful improve the cognitive ability in older adults as well as prevent the loss of basic cognitive abilities in people with brain disorders. Something to think about, but in the meantime, you might want to check out the other articles on the health benefits of running barefoot.

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Alloway et al. An Exploratory Study Investigating the Effects of Barefoot Running on Working Memory. Per Mot Skills, 2016;122(2):432-43.

Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!