With more and more column (and screen) inches being devoted to the miracle of barefoot running I thought it timely to mention some observations about how different runners react to barefoot or minimalist running shoes as a stimulus for making improvements to running technique. I also offer some thoughts on transitioning to barefoot or barefoot shoes for those who are really keen to give it a try. For the record, I don’t believe you need to run barefoot or run in completely flat shoes to learn the core elements of proper running technique. For some runners barefoot can be helpful, but it’s not for everyone – find out why in this article.
Is barefoot running a silver bullet?
It’s unfortunate that there is no one size fits all shoe, orthotic or technology solution for runners looking to improve performance and avoid injury. Various singular approaches have been tried over the years and whether it has been pronation control features, cushioning/technology (gel, air, torsion bars etc), minimalist and barefoot running, there has never been a running silver bullet. Running is a complex activity that is performed slightly differently by individuals, especially by non-elite runners, so it’s not surprising that people react and respond to changes in running footwear in various ways.
Alignment, stability and power in running start and end at the hips
The core reason each of these approaches doesn’t always deliver is that focusing on the extremities, feet, shoes, socks, orthotics, ankle posture etc ignores the overall running technique and muscle activation pattern used by the runner. How well you execute proper running form is driven by how well you use and condition the muscles in the running engine room – the hips. So just as undying faith in your cushy running shoes and orthotics is a sure fire way to end up injured, a quick switch to barefoot running and/or extreme minimalist shoes could equally see you broken if you don’t consider all aspects of good running technique.
Why is barefoot risky for many runners?
I agree that barefoot running is an attractive proposition, there’s a lot to like about the idea of getting back to nature as a means to stimulate improvements in your running form. The problem is that years of not running barefoot (or walking), wearing shoes with heels and modern unyielding hard surfaces combine to make this a risky move for many runners.
If you’re not amongst the fortunate runners who are quick to adapt to the change, there’s a good chance that removing your shoes could lead to injury. This is especially true if you adopt an all or nothing approach and perform all your running barefoot or in extreme minimal shoes.
You don’t want to end up like writer David Abel who wrote a great piece in the Boston Globe about training for and racing a half marathon in Vibram Five Fingers. Not only did he suffer the misfortune of a stress fracture of the foot, but also the slightly embarrassing experience of having some shoe wearing Kenyan elite runners laughing at his predicament. I can’t improve on David’s own description of what happened or Paul Blow’s classic illustration!
Limping toward the first-aid station, I encountered three Kenyans who had been among the top finishers. They pointed at my feet, and I noticed that they were wearing ordinary running sneakers.
“Did you really run in those?” one asked.
“We used to run barefoot to school every day, until we got shoes in high school,” he said. “But we used to run on dirt and grass. We would never run like that on pavement.”
He paused and laughed. “You’re crazy.”
Aside from the obvious hazards of stepping on rocks, glass or developing metatarsal stress fractures, a key area that is likely to cause you grief is the muscles in the deep compartment of the lower calves. The sometimes troublesome, but often overlooked muscular threesome of Tibialis posterior, Flexor hallucis longus and Flexor digitorum longus all have tendons that wrap under and attach to the foot and toes. These muscles and tendons are plantaflexors – they help stiffen the foot so it becomes stable and springy.
There’s little doubt that long years of wearing stiff shoes with heels weakens these foot stiffening muscles. The reason is that heels put your foot into a soft plantaflexed position (toes pointing down) and many shoe models have stiffness built into them that does some of the work that would otherwise be done by the engagement of the aforementioned deep calf muscles. Part of the main benefit of wearing shoes like Nike Frees or going barefoot is to re-condition these muscles. But you need to take it slowly as aggravating these muscles can lead to sore shins and foot pain.
The Calf, Soleus and Achilles tendon can also act up and cause you problems. The combination of working harder and over a slightly longer range of motion can be the trigger of soreness or injury.
Why do some runners adapt to barefoot running more easily than others?
There’s not much scientific evidence about that discussed this point, but there is some great writing from thoughtful bloggers and exponents of barefoot running and minimalist running shoes. Practical experience in something disparate as running is probably a better guide as to what works and doesn’t work outside of the laboratory.
Adding or removing footwear can be a useful stimulus, but it’s rarely the complete picture. A recent article and some video posted on YouTube by Runblogger Pete Larson illustrates this point perfectly. Pete filmed a group of barefoot and Vibram wearing runners at the recent NYC Barefoot Run. Some of these runners have adapted to a neutral to forefoot oriented foot-strike, others have not. The information presented in Pete’s article about impact and loading forces shows that if you don’t adapt quickly you can expect to continue to hit the ground pretty hard without shoes. I was also out watching the Melbourne Marathon over the weekend and noticed a couple of runners wearing Vibrams. One runner looked and sounded good in them, but another was slapping the ground hard and making heavy weather of it.
From my own experience as a runner and observing runners making improvements in their technique, I believe the first reason people get into trouble comes back to my point about good running technique and form being regulated at the hips. Runners with a basically sound technique tend to adapt faster to changes in footwear – this is because they are already good at activating their buttocks and hamstrings just prior to and during ground contact. Many of these runners also already have a relatively neutral foot-strike which makes it easier for them to transition to wearing less shoe. A previous article I wrote about a runner making rapid adjustments in technique in response to wearing Nike Frees is a good example of what I’m getting at.
This process of turning on your bum positions the lower legs and feet closer to the body mass and aligns the thighs with the hips. I captured this barefoot competitor (pictured below) at the 2011 Stawell Gift exhibiting good thigh and hip alignment. If you can’t run with this strong and stable posture then going barefoot could be risky. Almost all of the runners Mark and I have seen in the coaching environment this year have to some degree had hip alignment issues and lack of strength and control of the buttock muscles.
On the flip side we’ve noticed a number of times that runners with more natural talent do seem to adapt to whatever shoes you put on them. These runners are more likely to be candidates for the inclusion of more minimal footwear or some barefoot running in their program. It’s tough on runners (like me) that have to work a bit harder, but that’s just another unfair universe moment we have to deal with!
Runners that should be extra careful about barefoot
Your running technique tip is this: if you happen to share any of the attributes I had as a runner (see below), before I started improving my running form, you should be very cautious about adopting extreme minimalist shoes and/or barefoot running.
Runners who are quadriceps and hip flexor dominant and also happen to run heel-toe have a very short window of opportunity to make adaptations before the removal of all cushioning and support causes injury.
In short, the gap between running well and their current running technique and conditioning is too great to bridge in one major step (like going barefoot) without succumbing to injury.
For this type of runner a safer approach would be to make gradual steps down in running footwear support e.g. motion controlling to neutral, then neutral to lightweight trainer, followed by a progression into lighter, flatter marathon racing shoes and other minimalist running shoes. At the same time these runners should be working on hip strength, control and a better muscle activation patterns. This is exactly the path that I have followed.
Any barefoot activity should be confined to walking about the house , garden or office. For those wanting to further promote foot strength, doing some of your strength exercises barefoot (not when working with barbells for obvious reasons) might be a good idea. But keep an eye on how your body reacts, if you’re not used to it, even walking barefoot for short distances might be enough to trigger soreness.
Am I suited to barefoot running?
If you are a runner as I have described above I would say no, at least not initially. Working on a long term plan to reduce support in your footwear and increase strength is a safer option. And when I say long term, gradual progress over months and years is what I am talking about. You cannot rush this or anything in running. If you’re too impatient to follow this type of approach and you’re currently not injured and enjoying your running then stick with your current footwear.
Another crude test is to check out what your feet look like – if your toes are permanently pointed upwards from long years of shoe wearing and you don’t have the strength the curl them under your foot and say pick up a pencil off the floor, then you may want to think twice before losing your shoes.
Do my thighs stay aligned with my hips? If they don’t you’re asking for trouble going barefoot or wearing extreme minimalist shoes. The reason: runners that tend to run along a central line tend to create much more twisting through the hips, knees and lower legs. This posture has been linked to injuries such as shin splints (MTSS), stress fractures, ITB syndrome and many others. You need to get stronger in the hips before you completely remove all support from your footwear.
This will be the subject of a future article. But before I write that I’m going devise a safe strategy to re-introduce some barefoot running into my own program. I did experiment with barefoot along with an aggressive forefoot oriented foot-strike as my last major mistake before I wrote my book. It landed me with a few weeks on the sidelines and some months of easy jogging before I got over the nasty case of shin splints (MTSS). The reason: combining too many changes too quickly before I was strong and skillful enough to handle them.
Since then I’ve strengthened my hips and have been wearing Nike Frees for a lot of my running so my feet and lower calves should be stronger and I run in better alignment with my hips. In theory I should be ready to start taking on some barefoot running. Do I want to become a barefoot runner? No chance, nor am I going to append the word “Barefoot” to my name. I’m only going to use it as a carefully thought out and structured strength and coordination training intervention. Stay tuned to see how I get on and please leave a comment with your experiences of going barefoot.
Written by Brian Martin
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