Recently there has been a lot of attention drawn to a barefoot running. Though I am huge advocate of this there are many many things that need to be considered when deciding to toss your shoes aside and pound the pavement. Though this can improve speed, posture and overall fitness it also requires a good amount of skill, technique and most of all patience.
Kenyans are widely known as some of the best runners in the world. In addition to a lifestyle free of spine compressing chairs they are barefoot all of their lives. Years of walking around without shoes builds tremendous foot strength. This equates to solid body mechanics and an amazing ability to run with power, speed and grace. These are not the hunched over shufflers you drive by down by greenlake. They looked like gazelles as they float over the ground at amazing speeds. This is all done without $100 “athletic shoes” and no coaching or training.
After seeing such a thing or reading books like “Born to Run” you may be tempted to dump your nikes in the trash and go run a 5k. Before you do so you might want to take a step back. Assuming you grew up wearing shoes this may not be the wisest course of action. Without years and years of naturally developing foot strength this might be suicide for your foot health. This is the equivalent to tossing an infant under a fully loaded barbell and telling them to do a set of squats (trust me I’ve tried this). An untrained foot isn’t prepared to receive and redistribute the combined force of your body weight, inertia and gravity. Doing so will guarantee a good bout of soreness and quite possible an injury.
So how is this done properly and safely ? Barefoot running (or Ball of the foot mechanics) is a dichotomy onto itself. Although it is how the body was naturally designed to run it is a complex movement dependant on all the parts of the body functioning fluidly and properly. Due to the lack of muscle tissue in the heel a barefoot runner lands on the ball of the foot and big toe. This allows the athelete to absorb the impact starting with the big toe (the powerhouse of the foot) and through the calf. The nervous system responds to this impact and gently bounces the ankle into plantar flexion (pointing of the toe and ankle) sending the momentum up through the leg and the rest of the body. This fires the leg up like a piston and at near max speeds the foot nearly makes contact with the backside of your hips (booty to the lamen). This “unusual” height of the stride is often misconstrued as stride length. To properly do this the foot must land under the hip, not in front as most shoe bearing athletes will do. To ensure the muscles of the spine can transfer and absorb the impact the pelvis must be level requiring a competent and symmetrically strong core. To continue the momentum created by the lower body the scapula must be pulled down and back with the chest out and relaxed. This allows for proper shoulder mechanics as the arms swing chin to ribs and spine subtly rotates side to side.
Believe it or not that was a very truncated version of all that happens in a barefoot running stride. Though this is an amazing, healthly and effective way to run without years of shoeless living and proper coaching this might not be the best thing to jump (or run) into blindly. Here are few things to think about if barefoot running has crept into your fitness radar.
Unless you have injuries or specific issues in your feet flexible shoes are a must. Start wearing them around the house, for short walks and mundane tasks. This gives your feet room to move without the confining frame of a conventional shoe. Overtime your feet will start to wake up and function as they were meant to. As you get used to your new foot wear try them at the gym during your strength routines and non impart activities. If your feet seem to be accustomed to your new foot wear try them out for short distances at a time. This a great way to baby step your way into barefoot activity.
There is a reason I mention this twice. For some reason the running community has it in their head that you need to run at least 3 miles to call it a workout. Running, especially barefoot running is a complex and often elusive skill set. Developing this takes time and patience. Start with 100m (1 lap around the track) for 4 sets with 2 minute breaks in between. Focusing on a soft landing and keeping your posture in line. If you hear your feet pounding on the ground or feel jarring contractions in your foot and calve STOP! As with any sophisticated sports movement pain isn’t something you want to power through. Trust your instincts. If it doesn’t feel natural or flowing it probably isn’t. Adjust your landing, try different speeds, experiment with anything you can that might make your stride more efficient. Don’t worry about your heart rate or burning calories. Save that for a motion or mode of exercise that you already have competency in that won’t put your joint health at risk.
Hiring a running coach was probably one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. Trust me, the image in your head of how you run is nowhere near to how you actually do in real life. Having someone watch, video and critique you is invaluable. Even if your coach isn’t a professional having an objective set of eyes or someone to video you will give you solid feedback as to what needs improvement. Though video footage hardly every flattering it is cold hard evidence what is actually occurring when your foot hits the ground.
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