The Benefits of Barefoot Running
Running shoes are designed to absorb impact and control the body's tendency to over or under pronate. From a young age, athletic shoes are a natural part of our physical activity and they gradually become a strong focus for any runner. However, in using standard style running shoes, many runners often develop bio-mechanical tendencies that can lead to injury and long term problems. The issues of heavy heel striking, hard striking the ground or ineffcient stride develop in many runners who only use the industry standard style of running shoe. By embracing barefoot, or minimalist running even for a small portion of your weekly mileage you can improve your form, efficiency minimize impact injuries and increase your overall running fitness.
Now to be fair, running barefoot isn't something that many people would consider doing on a daily basis. Running barefoot can put you at risk of injury from debris, from other runners and exposure to cold winter temperatures (frostbite). However, incorporating some form of barefoot running can have great benefits to your running and fitness.
How It Helps
If you watch an elite marathon runner you will notice that his or her foot strikes the ground efficiently and smoothly. There is very little jarring, and the stride appears smooth and clean. An elite runner has very little 'up and down' motion, which is what makes the runner appear to glide along smoothly, and it also means that he is spending as much energy as possible on forward motion and not losing it to 'bouncing' up and down. Heel strikers, and often the rest of the pack do not appear to glide smoothly. There is a certain jarring motion that causes a less than elite runner to 'bob' as they run or to plod along heavily.
The impact from heel striking even partially, transfers more impact to the ground and less to transitioning to the next step. Often your running shoes may exacerbate this effect by having elevated heels which make it difficult to land on the mid or forefoot and have a smooth transition. By running barefoot your body will learn to embrace a more bio-mechanically efficient form which will gradually incorporate it self into your daily runs. This means you can run further, faster and with less inuries.
How To Incorporate Running Barefoot
Barefoot running should be incorporated slowly into your training. For some only a small portion of training needs to be done at a barefoot or minimalist level. Yet other will embrace the form of running fully, with many miles barefoot or with minimal support on their feet.
The easiest way to feel the difference in running barefoot is to do strides in a grassy area. Elongate your stride and run around 20 strides at a decent pace (about 50 to 100 meters) twice a week after a regular run. The strides will get your body used to running barefoot and will help you stretch your muscles after a run. After you feel comfortable doing strides start running longer distances, between 200 and 400 meters at a time after a normal run. Doing this twice a week will help condition your feet and body to sustain form when barefoot running . Then as you feel strong enough gradually increase your training to incorporate running an entire mile barefoot several times a week.
From here you can increase your barefoot running in the manner by either running more days per week or increasing the mileage you run barefoot during your training. Increasing your mileage or frequency of barefoot running will help sustain better foot strike form during regular runs and you should begin to feel more efficient and smooth on daily runs.
As you increase the amount of running you do barefoot or minimalist, consider that your body will take some time to get used to the training. Don't push yourself to injury. Your calves may feel sore, and your feet will probably ache as you begin to run over a mile at a time. It is a standard type of growing pain and one that you should allow your boy to recover from fully before pushing yourself to the next level. To fully embrace barefoot running you will want to change your style of shoe to a more neutral, less bulky, style. Look for a training shoe with a lower heel, which will help you incorporate the natural foot strike your body was designed for into your daily runs.
Using minimalist shoes instead of running completely barefoot is a wonderful compromise. Minimalist shoes range from a flexible, lightweight style shoe like the Nike Free Run+ to the very minimal glove like shoes such as the Vibram FiveFingers. You can achieve an almost identical footstrike to being barefoot when using these shoes. They work well at keeping your feet protected and are great for running on pavement or trails.
Minimalist shoes may seem a bit pricey for the amount of shoe you get, but if you are only looking to run a few times a week barefoot, they will last you an extremely long time. When looking for a minimalist shoe you want to make sure that the heel is as low as possible. The higher the heel the less benefit you get from the shoe. You also want to make sure that your toes have room to spread freely and that the shoe is very flexible. A flexible shoe that allows your toes to spread will best simulate barefoot running.