I’ve written and spoken in great detail about the benefits of running barefoot on concrete, especially on how it helps give you maximum forefoot strike leverage (because it hurts to heel strike when running barefoot on concrete), and it helps you develop impact-protective adaptations (it forces you to land MUCH lighter). These are some of the facts that we’re not used to hearing about the important role running barefoot on pavement plays in helping you improve your injury prevention efforts.
Most of us are deeply primed to believe that soft, thick underfoot cushioning equates to safer running and that running barefoot on pavement would be grinding on the joints. The hard truth is that those assertions are out-dated and untrue and that less protection is the BEST protection when it comes to developing a safe, effective, well-balanced forefoot strike running stride.
“When it comes to improving your overall running form, enhancing your forefoot strike, running with less impact on the knees and hips, developing stronger, more energy-efficient feet, running barefoot on pavement is a solution that we’re not used to hearing! The reality is, the facts don’t stop about the benefits of running barefoot on pavement! In this post I discuss how barefoot running on hard surfaces helps you make more efficient use of the elastic power structures in the foot/ankle complex, making your stride more spring-loaded and responsive (i.e. more springy), helping shore up more elastic strain energy for the benefit of improved running economy….”
How Running Barefoot On Concrete Turns Your Feet Into Energy-Saving Springs
The foot/ankle complex contains two major elastic power sources that when functionally strong and used properly, can save you a little to a lot of energy during running. These structures are the arch and the Achilles tendon and when it comes to optimizing the mechanical and elastic (spring) properties of these structures, running barefoot on pavement, NOT grass, has never mattered more!
Why does running barefoot on pavement, not softer, squishier surfaces (i.e. grass, matted surfaces, even shoes with thick underfoot cushioning) does a better job at activating and engaging the elastic power structures of the foot/ankle complex that results in more optimal elastic energy usage, giving you a bigger boost in forward momentum, with a richer return on mechanical and potential energy?
To get the full meaning of why running barefoot on pavement lays the ground for the development of a more responsive stride that’s especially associated with better spring function at the arch of the foot, here’s a basic example: think about throwing down a tennis ball on pavement vs grass. Which surface will result in a better bounce with greater spring-responsiveness, generating a higher pop-off? Bouncing the tennis ball on pavement because the amount of energy return is greater when the tennis ball is dropped on pavement vs on grass.
Comparatively, when you throw a tennis ball onto soft grass, the resulting bounce is slightly dull, less springy, less spring-loaded and pops off the ground with less spring responsiveness simply because the energy is absorbed in the soft ground. This is a strikingly similar exchange that takes place when you run barefoot on grass or even when you run in shoes with certain forms of underfoot cushioning. Cushioned running shoes, some not all, can make your stride feel flat and give a dead underfoot feel, and overall, can be a mechanical interference. This is no good for renewing the foot/ankle complex’s roll as acting as a spring which evolutionarily speaking is what, in large part, the arch and Achilles tendon are functionally specialized to do in running: acting as an energy-savings spring that helps conserve energy on muscular effort.
Now, imagine the same tennis ball thrown with the same energy against a hard surface, like pavement. The air inside the ball compresses and reacts much like our tendons and ligaments (or the elastic structures) in the lower leg, and initially absorbs the energy when it lands on the hard surface. Then, in a spring-like fashion, the energy is rapidly released, producing a more intensive spring-force that propels you forward as the ball would be propelled upward with greater ease.
So, that’s what’s actually happening to the spring-responsiveness of the elastic structures in the foot/ankle complex, using the tennis ball analogy, when it comes to running barefoot on hard vs soft surfaces and how running barefoot on pavement really does work best for the purpose of getting the elastic structures in the lower leg to participate in the way that they should, the way nature intended: as effective, energy-saving springs!
“Why running barefoot on pavement is a great way to weaponize your forefoot running stride for when you run in shoes? Good running efficiency, to some degree, depends on how well the elastic structures of the lower leg acts like energy-saving springs whereby running barefoot on pavement promotes the natural re-building of such structures, especially the arch. What is more is that the more you run barefoot on pavement, the more your arches grow functionally stronger and taller, the more they can harness richer spring energy, which best suits the purpose for potentially giving you an advanced ability to take your performance to the next level for when you run in shoes. ..”
This is why barefoot running training on pavement may be an effective tactic to make you a more efficient shod (shoe) runner because doing so improves the engagement of more passive mechanisms (the arch and Achilles tendon = springs), so that your body learns to rely less on more energy-expensive active mechanisms (muscle force) to power each step during forefoot running. The net effect is a forefoot running stride that’s more elastically-powered with reduced need for muscular work that goes into moving you forward.
The bottom line is that running barefoot on pavement provides the bare foot with the needed tactile sensory feedback that creates an enabling environment for the elastic power structures of the foot/ankle complex to make them more capable of producing energy-efficient thrust for take-off. It’s the TYPE of spring behavior in the lower leg when running barefoot on concrete that may help keep your forefoot running stride well-supplied with a little more economic strength because your stride becomes more elastically-driven which may help cut down on strained running economy.
If you enjoyed this post about barefoot running, you’ll love my other posts here where I showcase more evidence-based insights on the benefits of barefooting! You can also check out my YouTube channel here, where I discuss the health and performance benefits of forefoot running and the dangers of heel strike running.
If you’d like, you can also support Run Forefoot and help keep it going strong by making a donation in any amount of your choosing: https://www.paypal.me/RunForefoot
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.