The Power of Taking off Your Shoes

Running barefoot is better than running with shoes for your working memory?

When Bruce Springsteen sang, “Baby, we were born to run,” he wasn’t kidding. For nearly 2 million years before NikeTM appeared, the original and natural running shoe was the bare foot. The prominent heel pad on modern running shoes encourages your foot to strike the ground heel first, causing a jarring impact that travels through the joints of the leg. In contrast to shod runners, barefoot runners land midfoot or forefoot, and have almost no jarring impact whatsoever, leading to less injury when it is done correctly.

Because most runners come to barefoot from wearing shoes, their form needs work. Feet land far off the center of mass, too hard, and hips don’t twist as they should. To correct this requires an increased proprioception of a number of things at the same time. Are your feet landing beneath your hips? Are you running gently? Are your feet landing in a straight line or a zigzag?

When you have all of these down, exteroception comes into play. You have to pay attention to sight stimuli (things you can see) and something else shod runners take for granted, touch stimuli (things your feet can feel). You have to look and feel where you are landing because if you don’t, it hurts. Landing on glass, a sharp stone, or even a twig can be very painful for feet that are used to stomping about with shoes on. Barefoot runners tend to think of runs in terms of how they feel: rough, soft, smooth, slippery, cold, or hot.

While that’s true whether you’re running with shoes or without them, barefoot runners have the added stimuli of touch. One potential benefit of this extra sensation is a heightened awareness of the environment around them. We think this is because when you are running with shoes, you can select what you focus on, ignoring the pebbles and twisting roots. But barefoot runners are aware of nearly everything under their feet—there is little irrelevant information because they need to be aware of most of the ground in order to avoid a painful misstep.

But can this extra attention when running barefoot have cognitive benefits, especially for our working memory?

Working Memory, our ability to recall and process information, is used throughout our lifespan. By improving it, we may be able to realize gains in key areas from school, to work, to retirement.

In the first study of its kind, we enlisted 72 participants between 18 and 44. Participants ran both barefoot and shod (wearing shoes) at a comfortable, self-selected pace, for approximately 16 minutes. Working memory was measured before and after running. When running barefoot, one often has to avoid stepping on potentially hurtful objects by using precise foot placement. Thus, participants were required to step on flat objects to simulate running barefoot in an outdoors context.

When the data were analyzed, we found a fascinating result. It turns out that what you have on your feet when you run is very important to your working memory. When runners ran barefoot, they had higher working memory than when they ran with shoes – an increase of 16%.

There was no significant increase in working memory when running with shoes. We also measured their speed and heart rate, but neither had any effect on working memory performance. Though participants stepped on the flat objects when shod and barefoot, only the barefoot condition saw improvements in working memory. It is possible that the barefoot condition required a more intensive use of working memory because of the extra tactile and proprioceptive demands associated with barefoot running, which may account for the working memory gains.

This makes sense. We used to live in Scotland, and as a family, we loved spending hours and hours of our weekends running barefoot through thinly cut trails in the Scottish Highlands, bouncing through moss, jumping over streams, gently dancing over sharp rocks, and avoiding the occasional pile of sheep-recycled grass. Though we had loads of fun, we quickly learned that if you don’t pay attention, you find yourself tumbling down a hill or slipping and landing on your backside.

Seeing proof that running, and barefoot running in particular, pumps up working memory power is exciting because it shows that it is possible to improve our mental abilities. When we work our body, we work our brain.

Text adapted from the Working Memory Advantage (Simon & Schuster)

Research study published in Perceptual and Motor Skills


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Tracy Alloway Psychologist and Author. Researches working memory at the University of North Florida Read more