If you’ve stopped by a shoe store recently, it’s probably reminded you that running shoes can get a little complicated. There’s cushioning versus support, wide toe boxes versus narrow ones, minimalist versus maximalist. With so many options, sometimes it seems like the best thing to do is just ditch the whole mess altogether and run barefoot.
After all, humans have been running around long before we invented high-tech feet protectors. And because barefoot running encourages you to run on the balls of your feet rather than your heels, it supposedly helps prevents stress injuries like shin splints and plantar fasciitis that plague many athletes at some point in their athletic careers.
There is, however, one suprising benefit to running barefoot—though it has nothing to do with your fitness. Barefoot running can boost your working memory, according to a new study from the University of North Florida.
In the study, published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, 72 participants between the ages of 18 and 44 were recruited to run either barefoot or with running shoes at a comfortable, self-selected pace for roughly 16 minutes on a track. Runners were also instructed to step on targets (poker chips) laid out on the track—a task designed to simulate how barefoot runners must precisely place their feet to avoid potentially sharp or hurtful objects. Working memory was measured before and after running.
After the exercise, barefoot runners saw about a 16 percent increase in working memory performance, measured as their ability to remember instructions, recall directions, and process information. Runners wearing shoes saw no such increase. The advantages are obvious: Improved working memory translates to sharper performance in school, working a 9-to-5, or in retirement, the researchers say.
“This research shows us that we can realize our cognitive potential and enjoy ourselves at the same time,” lead study author Ross Alloway said in a press release. “If we take off our shoes and go for a run, we can finish smarter than when we started.”
Why the brain boost? It’s possible that the extra “tactile and proprioceptive demands” encourage your brain to tap into your working memory more intensively, promoting its function and growth. (Talk about a weird side effect of working out.)
There’s just one problem with trying to run like our ancestors: People living in developed societies do almost nothing else like them, either.
When otherwise inexperienced runners try barefoot running without a second thought, they often (unsurprisingly) get injured. Still accustomed to the support of running shoes, these barefoot folks keep all their bad habits: over-striding and striking on their heels, injuring the heel bone, and putting added pressure on the calf and foot muscles. Bottom line: Most people don’t take enough time to transition from high-support shoes to minimalist shoes to barefoot running; your form for each is completely different. And, of course, there’s also the issue of hygiene, safety (hello, broken beer bottles), and the hot asphalt you face on an average spring and summer run.
That’s not to say you couldn’t ever do run barefoot—just be sure that if you decide to try going shoeless, you take the proper steps rather than just tossing your sneakers. You could try minimalist shoes designed to mimic the feel of barefoot running, although they take some getting used to as well. Start gradually: Try trading out your old pair and your new pair every other run, and be sure to test your new minimalist kicks on familiar terrain.