Thoughts on barefoot running by Coach Spartacus – Brian Patterson.
I received a question the other day about barefoot running and it’s best answered here as I know others may be thinking about it. I’ve mentored and coached endurance athletes for a number of years and it seems each new year and new roster has someone eager to shed their running shoes and take off barefoot in search of speed and efficiency. And I was one of those who eagerly shed my shoes then ran right into a cast so a barefoot running induced metatarsal fracture could heal. I’ll briefly discuss barefoot running benefits, why one wants to run in a minimalist style, running form and a high level plan on how to transition to barefoot running. The information presented is my opinion and is not a recommendation to begin an exercise program or to begin running barefoot or in a shoe that does not offer protection and support. Before starting any exercise program or aggressively changing your program, please consult your personal healthcare provider to ensure you are fit and ready to begin.
While there are definite benefits gained from freeing one’s foot from the confines of a shoe, the risk versus reward is considerably skewed away from reward. We live in a highly advanced culture with social norms that dictate wearing shoes a majority of our day with signs often posted on storefronts denying service to anyone without shoes. Shoes are part of our first world society and most all of us grew up wearing them. It’s this lifetime of support and subsequent weakening of structures in the foot and ankle that make the risk of injury from running barefoot far higher than the reward of improved efficiency. My logical brain asks why would anyone want to run barefoot and why did I? A successful and injury free transition to barefoot running is possible as long as the transition is thought out and done with patience.
As soon as I hear someone wants to start running sans shoes, I first ask why. I ask a lot of why’s until the real reason is revealed and the most common reason is people want to get faster and are searching for the secret sauce. The one thing that will set them apart and give them the edge. I know the secret sauce. I have it’s recipe, it’s delicious and that’s another blog.
Barefoot running has definite advantages such as efficiency, stronger feet, ankles and lower legs, lower impact stress, lessened knee and back pain as well as improved proprioception and are all valid reasons to do some type of training in a minimalist shoe or even barefoot. The transition to barefoot running should be slow and deliberate to avoid setbacks. It’s possible to get there and it’s not for everyone.. It’s my opinion and personal experience that all the same benefits and efficiencies will be obtained on the path to running barefoot without ever removing your shoes.
Proper running form is one reason that is given to support a barefoot running style. Just as there are many different body types there are as many or more running styles. Running form is also a very broad topic and contains many talking points such as foot strike, lean angle, head position, stride length, cadence, rear kick and arm swing. For this barefoot running article, proper running form equals foot strike and stride length (as stride length relates to overstriding). Experts agree that a midfoot strike is most efficient because the foot has been designed with the longitudinal arch and supporting bones to absorb the energy of impact of the foot strike then contract and recoil the foot back into the stride.
Many novice barefoot runners become interested in minimalist running to overcome a heel strike. Unless a running gait analysis has been done, be wary of self diagnosing a heel strike. There is a lot of controversy about heel strike versus midfoot strike and many of us fall asleep thinking how we can eliminate our own heel strike. I think heel strike is less problematic than is widely believed with most of our running issues being due to overstriding. Heel striking in and of itself is not much of an issue. Heel striking in the presence of overstriding is problematic and this is because significant body weight impacts the ground at the heel causing sudden deceleration. The heel is subjected to all of the energy of impact and has no where to transfer it except through the long bones of the legs into the lower back and spine. An overstride with heel strike is a common reason people complain of knee and back pain from running. Barefoot running will almost immediately correct heel striking because the subconscious knows it will hurt to strike an unprotected heal. If one’s subconscious doesn’t know that it will hurt, the conscious mind will learn it very quickly. Do not strip off your shoes and run barefoot to correct a heel strike! Foot impact position first needs to be determined then a proper drills and conditioning program be implemented to correct the bad technique.
Here’s how I would suggest transitioning to barefoot running. First, put on your favorite pair of running shoes and run. Then keep running in those shoes every workout until the tread is worn off and then run some more until they no longer stay on your feet. Running shoe makers claim runners need to be replaced at around 500 miles because all of the support has been lost through wear. If they’re right, then you’ll automatically transition to a minimalist shoe. Now while that may seem facetious the point is that as the support and integrity leave the shoe, your tissues will strengthen. This is progressive resistance on a very small scale.
The second step, and this is done simultaneously while running your old shoes off of your feet, is to correct overstriding by shortening the stride length and increasing cadence. Focus less on eliminating heel strike and more on impacting the ground when your foot is directly under your hip.
Once overstriding is reduced and a higher cadence is achieved, the third part of the plan is begin running short, easy runs in a minimalist shoe or barefoot on a very soft surface as part of the warm up to regular runs. Start out on flat surfaces such as football, baseball or soccer fields. Flat grassy surfaces are best. After several weeks of very short easy runs these can be slowly increased to 400 – 800 meter runs. After several more weeks of easy middle distance runs, the runs can be progressed to 1600 – 2400 meters. One may consider buying some minimalist runners to protect the feet from stones, glass, debris etc. Although one reason to run barefoot is to look all BA so wearing a minimal shoe defeats that purpose, right? The next progression would be to running barefoot at the golf course. This is a great running spot because there is varied terrain. Be sure to clear it with the Proshop and be sure it’s after hours as not to disturb a golfer or risk getting hit. I like to play a late afternoon nine then run the course once it’s closed.
The regular long runs should still be occurring in the same worn out runners and one should continue to run in these worn out shoes until they no longer stay on the feet. At the point the shoes finally fall off of the feet one might be ready to go completely barefoot.
Barefoot and minimalist shoe running has it’s pros and cons. There are definite advantages to strength and efficiency if one has run barefoot all their life or if one slowly and properly transitions from shoes to barefoot/minimal shoes. The first and most important first step before coming out of a running shoe is to ensure running technique is sound, then if the proper time and training is spent on correcting the technique, the efficiency and speed sought from barefoot running might have already been attained before the first grass stain is noticed.