Can you run without orthotics?

mobility running form running injuries Apr 14, 2021
owner of Innerunner, Lawrence van Lingen running without orthotics

You may admire barefoot runners or those who hop seamlessly over rocks in minimal shoes, but can you afford to ditch your orthotics or rigid and structured running shoes?

The truth is, you can’t just simply switch to barefoot or minimal running, you need to earn the right (or strength in your feet) to be able to do this, and make sure you can perform the 3 things I talk about below.

Remember, running exerts 2.5 times the force of your body weight through your feet which is a lot of force, whereas walking only exerts 1.2 times your body weight. So, if you’d like to start barefoot or minimal running, or you’re keen to stop using orthotics, start walking around barefoot or with minimal shoes. This will slowly, over time, strengthen your feet and arches, increase your range of motion and help you become a faster, more efficient runner, provided you’re being careful and sensible.

The key is to develop movement, flexibility, and range of motion in your feet. You also need to be able to do the following 3 things:

1 Have independent bit toe and 4 toe control

Practice the following exercise daily to increase the range of motion and flexibility in your feet:

You can do this exercise seated or standing.

  • Start by keeping your big toes down, while you lift your other four toes up.
  • Then alternate with your four toes down and your big toe up.

This will help you to strengthen and increase flexibility and control in your big toe, as well as your other 4 toes independently. The big toe, also known a the “great toe” is the key to medial arch strength and forefoot control and stability, so it is vital that you empower the big toe.

2 Have 30 degrees of big toe and 4 toe extension

Here are a few exercises to develop flexibility and range of motion in your feet – this includes your big toe and toes separately. It’s important to have soft, adaptable feet when you walk and run and to be able to achieve a 30-degree range of motion in your big toe and other 4 toes separately. To test this:

  1. Take a book and put it under your big toe and bend it back a little- around 30 degrees.
  2. Next, turn and face where your other foot’s going to go, so that your hips face your front foot, and as you step out, you’ll load your other toe (as your heel rises too).
  3. Shift your weight across both feet and across your toes (so that you’re shifting weight to your front foot, then back to your back foot where your toe is rested on the book).
  4. As you shift your weight forward, the heel of your back foot will naturally rise off the ground – as the weight moves to your big toe on the book. This will stretch, strengthen and mobilize your toes.

This is a great way of seeing if you have enough range of motion in your toes. You can also try lift your toe off the book to get more movement and flexibility into the toes.

Then try this: 

  1. Move your foot across to the other side of the book
  2. Put your four toes on the book, with your big toe off the book
  3. Turn towards your lead leg (the other leg you’ll use to step out)
  4. Step, facing your lead leg and rock back and forth on back foot
  5. Pick up your toes off the book and rock
  6. Raise your heel up and down

Aim to do 20 reps per foot and practice this move daily for best results. 

NOTE: This exercise will feel difficult if you’re prone to slamming your toes down on the ground when you run. It will teach you to roll off soft toes when you run. It’s a great exercise for plantar fascia injuries and tight calves, as your feet will slowly learn to open up and relax. 

ALSO SEE: How these simple running and walking cues can enhance your form

3 Control your foot mechanics

Most people who can improve their ankle mechanics will go on to improve their run speed and efficiency about 5-10 seconds per km, so this is worth doing!

The aim with a neutral ankle is to ensure that your foot and ankle are straight when you walk and run, and that your knee tracks through the centre of your foot (toes) as you bend it, rather than collapsing inward.

If you let the inside of your foot collapse and roll in when you run, that can push your body out of alignment and cause injuries. It also means it will be difficult for you to run with minimal shoes or without orthotics.

To see if your foot is straight and your knee tracks correctly (i.e. if your foot mechanics are good), draw a line straight through the centre of your ankle with a pen and bend your knee. If your foot is straight, your ankle should be neutral too.

If you stand on one leg, you don’t want to see your foot sinking or rolling inward. You should be able to keep your ankle straight and maintain that stride. If you bend your knee, the knee cap should align or “go through” the middle of your forefoot.

Practice the neutral ankle drill

Start seated first to take the weight out of your ankles and off your toes. Put a thick book between your ankles, go up onto your toes without letting the book fall out.

If you can’t control your foot mechanics and keep your knee straight (and aligned with your middle toe) when you bend down- you shouldn’t be running barefoot, or in minimal shoes or taking your orthotics out of your shoes.

You’ll need to strengthen your feet and work on your alignment first. 

To restore strength in your arches…

If you’re looking for a great alternative to traditional orthotics, I highly recommend Barefoot Science insoles. Rather than rigid orthotics, they help to build and restore strength in the arches of the feet – by stimulating the muscles in the foot as you advance through progressive levels to finally reach optimal functioning.

How it works is that you put the insoles inside the shoe like an orthotic, the barefoot science inserts have a progressive series of arch inserts that tap on your arch when you walk or run. This reminds you to activate your arch. 

You start with an insole at level 1 or 2 and slowly progress to level 7. This really helps people with forefoot and alignment issues.

WATCH this video for a full run-down of what you need to do to run without orthotics:


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