The Bare Facts on Running Barefoot

Running Barefoot

You may have seen them running through your neighborhood, in your local gym, or even out on the trails: the barefoot or minimalist runners. This fad is steadily gaining popularity and rapidly becoming a trend, with shoe companies scrambling to keep up (e.g., Nike Free, Brooks Pure, etc.).

The obvious question is, why would anyone want to put their feet through that? The answer is simple: this is how our feet were designed to run.

Like many others, my interest in barefoot running began when I read “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. He faced an injury that prevented him from running –an all-too-common problem among runners. The book tells how he overcame his injury by adopting running practices used by some of the world’s greatest distance runners: the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

According to scientists, our feet helped us evolve into phenomenal distance runners. Each foot has 26 bones and over 20 muscles and tendons that help absorb impact and propel you forward. For example, your Achilles tendon and foot arch are designed to act like springs. When your foot hits the ground, it absorbs the energy of impact and uses it to push you forward.

Barefoot runners argue that the problem with modern-day running shoes is padding. All the extra cushioning in the heel allows runners to land heel first (heel-strike). When this happens, the foot and lower leg don’t absorb the impact. Instead, it’s sent up through the leg to the knee and hip, increasing your risk of injury.

Studies have shown that the percentage of injured runners hasn’t decreased since shoe companies introduced shoes with greater cushioning. In fact, it has remained constant at about 70 percent. In one military study, prescribing shoes according to foot type (i.e., low, normal, or high arch; stability, cushioned, or motion-controlled shoe) did nothing to decrease the injury rate. Scientists believe that a mid-foot landing is better for your joints. When you land on the ball of your foot (not your toes!), your Achilles and arch can do what they were designed to – absorb impact and propel forward.

It also allows you to run more efficiently because your momentum moves forward. In contrast, when your heel strikes, it’s like pumping the brakes in a car: every time that heel hits the ground, you slow down and have to work much more complicated (i.e., use more gas) to move forward.
Here are a few common questions about barefoot/minimalist running:

1) What’s the difference between barefoot and minimalist running?

Barefoot running is done barefoot. Minimalist running uses a flexible, thin-soled moccasin (e.g., Vibram Five-Fingers). The concept is the same, but the minimalist runner will have more protection from the ground.

2) Is barefoot/minimalist running right for you?

From an injury perspective, barefoot running can help with plantar fasciitis and shin splints. It can also help with any repetitive stress injury related to the impact of the heel strike shooting back up the leg. Although it may not be the answer for everyone, it’s a great cross-training tool to strengthen your feet and ankles.

From a foot/shoe perspective, wearing a motion-controlled shoe or having a flat arch doesn’t prevent you from barefoot running. However, you should make sure that your transition is slow to allow your arch and foot muscles to strengthen.

Consider your goals. If you’re training for a marathon or a personal record, it’s probably not the best time to introduce barefoot running. Making the switch indeed requires lots of patience and returning to running basics. If you don’t have the time and/or don’t want to invest the effort, this may not be the right option.

3) How should I transition into barefoot or minimalist running?

One word: SLOWLY. The muscles in your feet and legs need to adjust. Shoes have made our feet lazy, and our muscles must be woken up again. If you’re going entirely barefoot, the soles of your feet also need to adjust.

Build up to 30 minutes of walking barefoot (or in your minimalist shoes). Once you can do this, start to introduce running. Begin with one minute of running followed by one minute of walking. As your muscles get stronger, increase your reps (one set, two sets, three sets) and your running time (two minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, etc).

Other helpful tips for easing the transition:

  • STRETCH – especially your calves and Achilles tendon. They’ll be doing the majority of the work and will need some attention, especially in the early days
  • Start by doing your warm-up or cool-down barefoot
  • Refrain from barefoot/minimalist runs on back-to-back days. Your muscles need time to recover. Once you get stronger, this is no longer an issue.
  • Relax into it, and don’t try to control your foot’s landing. Just feel the contact with the ground. Trust that your feet will naturally adjust because the heel strike will hurt.
  • Shorten your stride and focus on NOT reaching your legs forward – imagine yourself falling forward or kissing the ground with the balls of your feet.
  • If you wear a corrective shoe and are worried about going from one extreme to the other, gradually work your way down to barefoot running by replacing your old shoe with a less corrective one.
Like all things running, there are many different opinions about barefoot running. Although it’s been great for me, I also recognize that it may not work for everyone. Think of the foot/shoe spectrum (barefoot/minimalist, cushioning, motion control) like the jean spectrum (skinny, boot cut, flare, loose fit): not everyone looks good in every cut. You have to figure out which one works best with your body! Just remember to take it slow and listen to your body. More than anyone or anything, it will tell you whether minimalist running is proper for you.

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