This is a guest post from our friend Jessica Hegg from ViveHealth.com
Interested, but somewhat intimidated by the thought of barefoot running? Comical visions of Fred Flintstone powering his car with his barefeet come to mind, or Frodo Baggins and the image of the large, callused, furry feet of J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits. You may have heard of barefoot running from author Christopher McDougall who wrote the popular book Born to Run which focused a fascinating lens on the “reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons”. This tribe miraculously could run not 10, not 20, not 50, but hundreds of miles in the most rudimentary, flat sandals, and at times, completely barefoot.
No cushioning, no orthotics, no motion control, no ankle stabilization, nothing. How did they do it without tearing up their feet or spraining their ankles or tearing their plantar fascia tissue? Aren’t fancy running shoes a necessity to enhance running technique and performance and to prevent injury?
It’s the discovery of the most basic foundational principle of running technique and essentially the evolution of human bipedalism which encapsulates barefoot running. Shod running, or running with shoes, encourages a form of running where initial impact is made with a heel strike to the ground followed by pronation of the midfoot and forefoot then hitting the ground and distributing your weight.
Barefoot running flips this form on its head, engaging the forefoot first with initial impact on the lateral ball of the foot followed by the midfoot and heel striking the ground to distribute the rest of your weight. As this Harvard analysis reveals, barefoot running:
Strengthens the foot. With 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, ligaments, and tendons in your feet, they are the powerhouse of your movement, energy, and strength. Barefoot running helps you discover muscles in your feet you didn’t even know you had, and strengthen them overtime for faster, stronger performance.
Is more efficient than shod running, requiring 5% less energy according to this 2014 study. How? Because a forefoot strike when running optimizes on the body’s foot and calf muscle to act like springs which store and release more energy than if you were to heel strike first like runners do when wearing shoes.
Feels freeing and good on the feet (after initial transition)
Worried about some of the challenges you may have heard about with starting barefoot running?
Getting started does require somewhat of a learning curve, but it is a release from fear that barefoot running is all about. The whole market of footwear when it comes to running is largely motivated by fear – fear of injury, fear of pain, fear of not being able to run as fast as you should. Barefoot running requires you to let go of this fear, which in turn unlocks stress relief and feelings of positivity. Challenges you might have in mind include:
Time: Transitioning from a heel strike to a forefoot strike takes time, training, and a strong will to hone the proper technique. The thing about shod running, however, is that it hurts like a dickens when you land on your heel barefoot. Your body is almost triggered to strike first with the forefoot after you start barefoot running because of this initial and unseemly pain.
The other thing about time is that you have to build up your barefoot running mileage slowly when you first begin, even starting by simply walking barefoot as much as possible. Aim for a quarter mile to a mile every other day in the beginning and then gradually increase around 10% distance each week.
Pain: Your feet are chock full of nerve endings, about 7,000 per foot, so in the beginning you will feel the ground beneath you in all its glory – sticks, rocks, cracked acorn shells, you name it. Overtime, with a growing awareness of your surroundings and the repeated pounding of the foot to terrain, the pain messages will dilute, calluses might develop as natural cushioning, and you will find that you can cover distance barefoot like your ancient ancestors once did.
That said, like with any sport or activity, improper form, bad posture, or weak technique might result in chronic pain in the knees, hips, ankles, etc. Never run through excruciating pain that should be evaluated by a medical professional. You will only hurt your chances of continuing barefoot running. Off the road or trail, your feet may benefit from aids like a bunion splint or hammer toe crest pad, which support certain bone deformities (bunions, hammer toes) and address arch issues that come from having to wear shoes (to work, etc).
Flexibility: Not only does barefoot running increase your stride length and the number of strides you can take when running, but it engages key muscle groups in the legs and feet that you may never have before. As your foot and leg act like springs when you strike first when running with your forefoot, you’re hamstring and calf muscles and adjacent tendons will act like powerhouses. Make sure to stretch them after runs when they are warm and pliable and even massage to break up scar tissue and stimulate blood flow to aid tissue repair.
Humans have been running for years with bare feet. As McDougall writes, “To date, the only people I’ve found who who refuse to consider the idea that running shoes are a bad idea are the people who sell them.” If you’re feeling the same way and ready to try barefoot running remember to start slow, lock down the forefoot technique, pay acute attention to your surroundings, and free yourself from fear and expectations.
Jessica Hegg is the content manager at ViveHealth.com. Interested in all things related to living a healthy lifestyle she works to share valuable information aimed at overcoming obstacles and improving the quality of life for others.