Barefoot Running: Running Techniques
Barefoot running may seem like a new and wacky fad, but it’s actually a return to our evolutionary roots. Many runners are skeptical of this latest update in 'shoe technology,' but barefoot shoes were the way all running shoes were made as early as the 1970s, before the sneaker got bigger, better, and more harmful.
When I got my first pair of barefoot shoes, I did the classic newbie slip and decided to go out for my typical four mile run, instead of adjusting a mile at a time. My calves were still tender even a week later. The barefoot shoes, by putting the runner on their toes instead of allowing the heel to strike the ground, makes the body work a whole new set of muscles. Runners that have trained in the traditional sneaker essentially have to relearn what we were born to do!
In the book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall explores the question: why have the number of running injuries dramatically increased in recent decades? Why don’t cheetahs or dogs get shin splints or torqued knees? Why are humans seemingly so prone to injury? In fact his research finds that running injuries have only increased since the 1970s when the running shoe started morphing into more than a protective shell for the foot.
The idea is that we were born mechanically with everything we need to run. But when money got involved in athletics, they needed something to sell, telling the running public that we really needed this heel protector, or this arch support. As 'research' and 'shoe technology' improved they could sell supposedly new and improved products. Before the advent of the modern sneaker, running shoes were mere flat foot coverings, yet the incidence of running injuries was vastly lower.
The Body Mechanics of Barefoot and Non-Barefoot Running
Running barefoot, or in barefoot shoes, makes the runner instinctively protect their heel. Instead of a heel-toe landing, the ground strike is entirely on the forefoot. The forefoot strike inflicts a lighter impact on the body. The heel-toe strike furthermore is actually a braking motion. Watch the two videos to see the different foot "strikes" in slow motion.
Heel Strike Running
The Cause of Running Injuries
The heel-toe foot strike jars the body with the increased impact and places immense strain on the foot and connecting tendons, bones, and muscles. Harvard researchers are finding that it is this heel-toe strike style of running - that is encouraged by thick heeled sneakers - that causes so many running injuries.
Forefoot Strike Running
Barefoot Running Body Posture
When I switched over to 'barefoot' shoes, I immediately found that I was faster. The classic padded-heel sneaker, I realized, had allowed me to be a lazier runner, collapsing into the heel strike. Forefoot striking, rather, causes a propulsion of the legs and naturally requires the body to keep better posture. Without the covering of a sneaker, your body readjusts to 'protect' the foot from heavy impact. Thus, I've found that barefoot running requires more core strength and control.
For his book, Christopher MacDougall interviews a man who runs in sandals through the canyons of Mexico for days on end. He receives the advice to run lightly: think “easy, light, smooth, fast.” MacDougall observes the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico, an indigenous population that has escaped modern world take-over by literally running away through the rough Mexican Copper Canyons. This tribe runs ultramarathons for survival, but also for enjoyment - friendly races are a natural part of their culture that everyone takes part in. And they run it all in flimsy thonged sandals.
MacDougall came up with several observations on the mechanics of barefoot running, based on his observations of Tarahumara running technique. If you're a runner adjusting to the barefoot technique, think about doing the following:
- run with the back perfectly erect, spine elongated and head up.
- take small, quick strides, keeping your legs underneath you. “If you have a choice between one step or two between rocks, take three.”
- let your arms swing rib-high.
Watching on TV the Olympic sprinters run in slow motion, I noticed that as their legs propelled forward the feet curved in, so that the foot's outer top edge by their pinky toes would strike first. This side-to-side landing lessens the impact on the foot.
Choosing Barefoot Shoes
Barefoot shoes sound like an oxymoron. And in fact, before Nike started glitzing our shoes with added "technology" to support the arch, pad the heel, etc...all running shoes were what we now call 'barefoot': flat soled and minimally padded.
The five-finger shoes in which each toe is separated may look odd, but they give one the exact experience of running barefoot. If you're not ready to give your toes free range go with one of the many brands of more traditional looking shoes. I have a pair of Vibram Minimus; their slightly stiff sole reminds me of the spikes we wore running Track and Field.