Is barefoot running good for you?

This post was imported from the Two Fit Chicks and a Microphone podcast blog.

Another running question for Coach Julia:

What's your take on barefoot running? Is there really any scientific evidence to support it?

Julia says:

When I was in high school in the mid 70’s I had a history teacher that was a recreational runner. He would go running every single day at lunch circling the perimeter of the football field, barefoot on the grass. After more than thirty years barefoot running has made a huge comeback in the States, mostly after the success of Christopher McDougall’s best seller book “Born to Run”. If you haven’t read his book yet, I highly recommend it. It’s probably the most entertaining book I have ever read on running, and I’ve read them all!

In the second week of my Base program I wrote a paragraph about the importance of using your feet while you run:

“Most of us think about our legs while running, but the one most important aspect of how well you run is how you use your feet. In running your feet not only land you as you “fly” through the air, they’re used to push you off the ground as your body is propelled forward. How you use your feet is going to determine how fast you run and help you fend off a lot of running related injuries. In fact, people that complain about knee problems when running are most often “shufflers”. They land flat on their feet, absorbing all the impact on their knees.”

What Christopher McDougall emphasizes quite strongly in his book is on how running shoes are now constructed to immobilize your feet rather than allow you to use them the way they were meant to function. With all the cushioning, wedges and “air”, we can now run with no pain, and that is not always a good thing. Your feet need to move and push and “feel” the ground so they know how and when to shift or change position based on what kind of surface they’re on. A good runner has good biomechanics while running, and that starts with landing properly on your feet and then pushing off with them.

That said, I am not ready to go out and run barefoot. I think there are many ways that you can rehabilitate your feet so that you are using them while you run without taking off your shoes.

  • Buy no frills, light weight, running shoes. Look for a running shoe that allows you to move your foot. The soles should be solid but flexible. Do not buy anti-pronating correctors or super padded, wedged soles, running shoes. A nice basic shoe like the Asics DS trainer are a good example. (no endorsement!). They’re lightweight with the right amount of padding but they don’t have all the “motion control” plastic that keeps your foot pegged in the shoe.

  • Go barefoot at home. As soon as you walk in your front door, slip off your street shoes and go barefoot. I know someone out there is saying, “but I just wear slippers at home…” It’s still not the same as going barefoot! If your feet get cold or you’re not used to walking around the house without slippers, buy a pair of thick cotton or wool socks and slip those on. In our house we went as far as putting in a floor heating system so that we can go barefoot all year round.
  • Regularly practice foot perception exercises. If you’re not used to using your feet because you wear shoes all the time, you need to rehabilitate them so that they regain balance and feeling. The easiest foot perception exercise:

    Stand on one foot, stork style, hold your other foot behind you with the knee bent. Now just stand there for one minute. If you lose your balance you cannot put the other foot down to regain it. You’ll need to hop around in order to get back in balance. While you’re doing this, feel and notice the foot that is in contact with the ground. Use your big toe to balance yourself. Switch feet after one minute.

    You might notice that you’re better at keeping your balance on one side rather than the other. Keep switching back and forth for up to ten minutes total time… each day! You can do this anywhere (on the phone, in front of the television).

    Once you’ve mastered it you need to start making it more difficult: do a windmill movement with your arms or move your upper body around. Anybody that has a little yoga experience should have no trouble doing this. Note that your ankles might me sore after just one session but his is normal and goes to show how much you need to practice!

  • Foot awareness while running. Pay attention to your feet while your run for just ten seconds at a time. It’s enough to just say to yourself, “Okay, now I’m going to pay attention to my feet” in order to make a change. How are you using your foot? Are you pushing off with your forefoot to move forward? Are your ankles flexible? Can you hear yourself run? (you shouldn’t!). Only do this exercise ten or fifteen seconds at a time, otherwise your feet will be too sore, and really, we don’t want to take the fun out of running!
  • Try a metronome to help you shorten your stride. A large percentage of recreational runners overstride. They take these big, huge, bounding steps thinking that this will move them foreword faster. It might for a few miles but it’s tiring and taxing on your quadriceps and biomechanically incorrect. You must shorten and quicken your stride, something very natural to barefoot runners. If you want to try and change from overstrider to quick strider an instrument that can help you change that is a metronome. Seiko makes a nice one (model DM 33, approx. $ 20,00 USD). You’ll want to first measure how many steps per minute you take running now, and with the help of the metronome, increase it gradually. This whole subject might merit another article if there’s any interest.

  • Go barefoot…on a well groomed field. Find a nice, well groomed football field. Warm up on the track WITH your shoes first, then hop on the field and take your shoes off. You can start by doing some walking and then spurts of running. After you’re used to being barefoot you can try out a 10 x 100 meter strides, running them diagonally across the field. When you’re done, put your shoes back on and run another mile wherever you want (track or field).
  • If you’re not ready for the complete barefoot experience, there are a few shoes you can use that are close:

    – Nike Free is an unconstructed running shoe that works quite well if you want to flex your feet but keep them warm. I wouldn’t use them for really long distances, anything up to 6 miles is fine. I use them when I want to do running drills like skipping and bounding.

    – Vibram Five Fingers – this is surprisingly an Italian shoe! Even though you see more and more people running around with these on, they are the closest thing to barefoot running and you will have to go easy on them at the beginning. I have friends with lots of running experience that have never gotten past mile TWO with a pair of five fingers on. Your mileage may vary!

    – When professional athletes want to put their feet in action again, they put on a pair of spiked running shoes. For experienced athletes only!

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