Barefoot Running

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The topic of barefoot running has become increasingly popular in the past year. Christopher McDougal’s book Born to Run seems to have a lot to do with it. This book unearths an entire culture of barefoot runners (an indigenous population in Mexico that still exists) and includes pages of anecdotal evidence in favor of barefoot running as well as a little bit of science to back it up.

Historically, the most popular name associated with the subject of barefoot running has been Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian runner who won the 1960 Olympic marathon without shoes. He, with a handful of other people that surfaced over the following decades as barefoot runners, were viewed as unnecessarily extreme or radical and eventually faded into the history books along with other misdeeded anomalies.

 

Why Barefoot Running?

 

Whether you believe that humans evolved millions of years ago or were created a few thousand years ago, one point cannot be argued. We were running long before the invention of the modern running shoe, which Nike first put on the shelves in the early 1970’s. Before the invention of the running shoe that we know so well, our feet hit the ground differently. That is what barefoot running is about: allowing our feet to move as they should.

The next time you’re out on a run and are passing a soccer field or some other grassy surface (not a dog park), take your shoes off and run around barefoot for a few minutes.  You’ll quickly see that your forefoot hits the ground first, not your heel.  This is how humans ran before running shoes, and this is how our legs work most efficiently to absorb impact and to use our energy for moving forward quickly. Try jumping off the second to last step of a flight of stairs and see if you land on your heels or forefeet. Also, look at videos of any elite runners, and you’ll see that they run in this forefoot striking manner whether they’re wearing shoes or not.

 Forefoot striker versus heel striker

Forefoot striker versus heel striker

The people of East Africa, some of the fastest distance runners in the world, don’t wear shoes until they’re well into their teens. On top of that, they typically run several miles to and from school every day. They spend years running barefoot as children, allowing their muscles to develop specifically to this type of forefoot-strike running gait. It doesn’t change when they put shoes on. We’d probably see more of the fastest runners in the world racing barefoot if the shoe manufacturers didn’t offer them endorsements they couldn’t refuse. We, Americans, on the other hand, generally start our running careers later in life and wear shoes which cause/allow most of us to heel strike.  With a sudden switch to barefoot running, consequently forefoot striking, it’s necessary to build up those muscles that have been supported by shoes all this time and develop the muscles that become active with a forefoot strike.  The calf musculature and Achilles tendons are the most notable structures that have to start working overtime compared to shoe running.  Doing too much too soon will definitely lead to tendonitis and/or overuse injuries of the lower leg.

When people think of switching to barefoot running, they envision tossing the running shoes into the used-shoe bin at Ski Rack and heading out shoeless on their next run, continuing their training where they left off. Unless you’ve got a 5-minute run planned, that’s a bad idea. Even if you’re the type of person who goes shoeless the second you get home from work or loves walking around barefoot or in socks, it’s important to remember that walking is not the same as running. The biomechanics are very different, and we put 2-3 times our body weight into our feet when we run. “But I’m training for the Vermont City Marathon and have been running 50-60 miles a week. Surely I can handle 5 easy miles barefoot.” Nope, don’t do it.

How to Properly Start Barefoot Running

The best strategy is to approach it is as if you’ve never run before. This conservative approach will help your muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments adapt to the new stresses and minimize overuse injuries. Starting out measuring in minutes is safer than using miles. This is also a very good time to listen to your body: if you have an ache or pain, take another rest day before continuing.

Begin by running on something relatively comfortable for your feet, such as grass or on a running track. The duration should be between 5-10 minutes for the first few times. Slowly build up barefoot time over several weeks. The 10% rule would be good to apply during this time, but at this low mileage, it can be quite frustrating to only add 10% per week. Being patient is important.

As stated above, barefoot running is about allowing the foot to move as it should, contacting the ground with a forefoot-strike. Elite runners wear brand name running shoes and still manage to forefoot strike. When it comes down to it, what’s on our feet really doesn’t matter; the difference is how our feet are moving. Running without shoes, however, is the best way to feel how our foot should be moving. 

There is a new category of footwear, minimalist footwear, available for people who want to have the benefit of barefoot running with the protection of a shoe. These shoes are not much more than a way of attaching a protective surface to your foot. 

Options include but are not limited to:

  • Vibram Five Fingers
  • Huarache sandals
  • Leather moccasins
  • Aqua socks
  • Water shoes

These shoes offer no arch support or cushioning, but when our feet are moving properly, they don’t need those features.

Barefoot running appears to be more than just a passing fad this time around. Additional scientific research will be released over the next few years looking at various aspects of barefoot running. It will be interesting to see how running changes as a result.

*** The Vermont City Marathon is rapidly approaching. Being just weeks away from a race that you’ve spent months preparing for is NOT the time to try something new. Any marathoners interested in attempting barefoot running are strongly advised to wait until after you’ve completed the marathon and had sufficient recovery of a week or two. ***