The Barefoot Running option.
There is a long running debate about whether barefoot running is good for you. Assuming we can find hazard-free surfaces to run on, should we consider running in bare feet as part of our training?
After reading many articles supporting barefoot running, and many articles warning of the hazards, I endorse the practice – in small doses.
Barefoot running strengthens the muscles of the feet, and helps develop a natural stride pattern. Running shoes have forced runners into an unnatural stride pattern, where they tend to over-stride. That’s because running shoes over-protect the heel area, encouraging the runner to land harder on the heel, whereas barefoot runners make mid-foot landings, and therefore tend to have shorter and more efficient strides.
Mid-foot landings are preferable because leg turn-over is faster, and runners’ feet can touch and go much more rapidly, minimising contact time on the ground.
The consequence for older athletes who adopt a barefoot running program, is that this might cause more problems than it solves. Years of protecting the feet with conventional running shoes means there is a good possibility that reverting to barefoot can trigger all sorts of injuries, for example achilles tendon strains, inflammation of the plantar facia, shin splints, and metatarsal problems.
This sounds serious, but remember also that running shoes have failed to prevent a whole range of running injuries, despite years of development and research.
The ideal is never to have eliminated barefoot running from your exercise regime. But, while youngsters would be advised to incorporate barefoot into their daily routine indefinitely, is it advisable for older people to do likewise?
The clear and overwhelming message from the experts, the amateurs, and everyone in between, is: take time to very very gradually adapt to barefoot. For myself, I started the process some years back by changing my running shoes to the flat and light “Nike Free” brand. There are other similar options. These manufacturers warn we should get used to their shoes by doing a lot of walking in them before starting running.
Similarly training barefoot should start with doing non-running activities barefoot. Walk around the house without shoes, then later move outdoors and start some gentle activity like walking and jogging and throwing a Frisbee around on grass. The first running sessions should be very short; think progressive, and progress slowly.
Also, don’t use this time of adapting to barefoot as a substitute for training when you are injured. It’s best to be injury free when you are making such radical changes to your training pattern and technique.
I guess there will be some readers who will launch into this and forget about the potential hazards. So, remember, beware of broken glass, bird poo, thistles, thorns and hidden objects in long grass. Monitor the feet for injury, for unusual swelling, or other damage. Let the feet recover after each barefoot run. Don’t run barefoot in the dark!
Some endorsements taken from comments on my blog :
(a) “Tokyoracer” “The first thing about barefoot running is: it feels great. When people are reluctant to try it, I say, just run 100m down and back on the grass, it will feel great. They do that and come back and say, That felt great! The second thing is, it shows you *how you should be running.* That is, midfoot striking, shorter strides, heels flicking back, and lightly, lightly. So do some 100m strides after (or before) a workout, and then—remember that feeling! I find that running on a track is also no problem - up to a few 400s or 800s. I'm sure I could do more if I did it more regularly and toughened up my feet. I think that besides improving your form it also strengthens your feet and legs, so actually the more you do, the better.”
(b) and from Ewen: “As Bob said, it does feel great, especially on grass. I did a lot of barefoot running in the 'old days' - less now, as running in my worn out old Frees feels pretty much the same as running barefoot. Pros would be using all the foot muscles when running and the light weight - lighter than the lightest racing flats. I ran my 1500 and 3000 PBs barefoot. My best recent 5k at Stromlo was also barefoot.”
So, good luck everyone. I ran all my schoolboy runs barefoot, including a 4:32 mile race on grass at the age of 16. It felt good then, it feels good now, and I feel some feedback coming on… so please let me know what your experience is.
Next, on Sundays when I am not otherwise occupied, I will be going out to Stromlo Forest Park to see if a 62 year old can resume barefoot running after a 46 year break from it. And from Sunday 17 October I will meet my training group there every week, where I plan to introduce them to small doses of barefoot. Then at some stage I will write a follow-up article to this one.
Wednesday, 1 September 2010
The Barefoot Running option.