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How to Better Know Barefoot Running

How to Better Know Barefoot Running

If you have done some searching around the web about running you might be aware of the hot debate over barefoot running. The debate, that started years ago, centers on whether running in shoes with cushioned heels and supportive structures changes the way people move so dramatically that it’s more likely to cause injuries. In short, people can learn,some argue, to run without heel striking. People can learn how to better know barefoot running.

Proponents of barefoot running say, “the natural way is more likely to prompt a runner to land on the padded and springy part of the foot, toward the front, rather than strike the ground with the heel as many shod runners do.”  Reuters Health medical News. (Dec. 10, 2011)

Thus this post seeks to answer the question as to whether running in bare  feet reduces or increases the risk of injury for you.

First,  let’s  get a good understanding of the concepts that I’m covering in this post.

 

tips on running
running bare foot

Heel Striking

Stuart Warden, a researcher for the Department of Physical Therapy at Indiana University, observes that the feet of runners land differently, depending on whether one is running in bare feet or in athletic shoes with a big cushion under the heel. The shoes encourage the runner to strike the ground with heels first. Barefoot running encourages the runner to land on the forefoot or balls of the feet. Source Citation MLA 8th

Stronger hips improved running mechanics, lessened knee pain (http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/18772.html#6)

Impact Force

When the heel strikes the ground in a shoe, there is an impact force that is felt  up through the foot and into the body. As noted in a previous post, the impact force can cause stress fractures and other injuries associated with running such as Plantar Fasciitis. By decreasing those forces, the risk of injury is reduced. When barefoot runners’ feet strike the ground, “the runner is landing on the front or middle of the foot and the heel is lowered to the ground,” notes Stuart Warden in the mentioned report. This means the  impact force is less and the risk of potential injury is lower.

Adaptability

The theory speaks to the ability of the feet to adjust to different environment and in the process become stronger. It goes something like this: when someone runs bare feet, the foot lands differently each time and works different muscles thus strengthening the foot.

Okay, let’s jump to it.

The Case For Running Barefoot

Meet the Tarahumara Indians.

 

They  come from Northern Mexico and routinely run in races of 150 miles or more. Here’s the really impressive thing. The Tarahumara don’t seem to suffer from injuries associated  with running. Christopher McDougall, a researcher tells an interesting story. He states, “back in 1994, a Tarahumara man ventured out of the canyons to compete against an elite field of runners at the Leadville Trail Ultramarathon, a 100-mile race through the Rocky Mountains. He wore homemade sandals. He was 55 years old. He won.”  Daily Telegraph[London, England], 12 Jan.2010

 

  

McDougall noted that the Tarahumara didn’t pound their  feet when running. He says,” Unlike the vast majority of modern runners, who come down heavily on their foam-covered heels and roll forward off their toes, the Tarahumara land lightly on their forefeet and bend their knees, as you would if you jumped from a chair.”

Christopher McDougall in the mentioned reports states:

“Daniel Lieberman, the head of the evolutionary anthropology department at Harvard, recruited Harvard students for an experiment: he had them kick off their sneakers and run every day in either bare feet or wearing a thin, rubber foot-glove called the Vibram Fivefingers. The results were remarkable. Once their shoes were taken away, the students instinctively stopped clumping down on their heels. Instead, they began landing lightly on the balls of their feet, keeping their feet beneath their hips and bending at the knees and ankles. Without knowing it, they were mirroring the Tarahumara.”

tips on great running form
Great running form

To further his case for barefoot running, Christopher McDougall goes to  the  army sort to speak. He notes how “ for centuries, armies have had to train out-of-shape recruits to cover marathon distances on their feet. Rather than dispensing plush trainers, the military took another route. As described in the classic military text The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe, all new recruits are taught to land lightly on the balls of their feet. They keep their feet under their hips, swinging their legs in a quick, light shuffle to a beat of 180 strides per minute – which, not surprisingly, exactly matches the ancient running rhythm of the Tarahumara.” (Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Increasing your Feet’s adaptability

Dr. Najia Shakoor a researcher at Chicago’s Rush Medical College notes that when your feet can sense the ground, it sends a message “Your body tells itself, My foot just hit the ground, I’m about to start walking, so let’s activate all these mechanisms to keep my joints safe. Your body’s natural neuromechanical-feedback mechanisms can work to protect the rest of your extremities. You have much more sensory input than when you’re insulated by a thick outsole.” [ Adam Sterbergh New York Magazine, april 28, 2008 pg. 24]

Adam Sterbergh

This simply means that shoes and thick padding, according  to those who are barefoot running enthusiasts, changes  the way you walk and run in a negative  way.

Conclusion

You’ve been learning how to strengthen your feet by barefoot running. And while this may be a good method for lots of people, it’s not for everyone. Indeed, this method may be dangerous for people who already have Plantar Fasciitis and other related running injuries.

That’s because  people with running related injuries at advances stages simply can not do this method because it will worsen their condition. If you fall into this category, then here’s what you should do instead. Stay with running shoes that give you good support. If later you want to transition to barefoot running you should do so gradually. If you are a recreation runner and have done well with running shoes, there isn’t any reason to switch.

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I like to hear from the readers so please leave me a comment below to let me know if this post helped you or if you have any questions.

6 thoughts on “How to Better Know Barefoot Running

  1. Hey Thabo,

    Wow what an article! I’ve always loved barefoot running but my parents always warn me that it’s not safe and bacteria from the soil can get stuck in between toenails.

    But as they say, “God gives you feet so you can walk on god-made land. Humans make shoes so you can walk on human-made roads” Or something like that, you know how it goes 😀

    1. Hi Riaz,

      You and your mom represent the current debate on barefoot running. The more I found out how each side truly has convincing evidence to support its position, the more I realized that this is a topic that I had to examine in a post. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  2. You have me sold, I’m fully convinced that it would be better on your entire body running barefoot. That being said in modern day this could actually be dangerous with the amount of trash, etc. on the ground. In my area it isn’t safe to walk around barefoot in the park because it’s possible that you could step on a heroin needle. (Maybe I should move) but unfortunately that is the sad reality in many areas. Or if not that stepping on glass or something is always a risk. This is a good idea in certain places though, maybe the beach would be ideal.

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Your comments are spot on. I think while barefoot running may have its benefits, it may not be the right choice for everyone. In fact, in some cases it may be dangerous. I think that most athletes, amateur or otherwise, should stick to shoe ware as it offers real protection and some performance advantages.

  3. Interesting read because I knew that walking barefoot is beneficial for the whole body. We have many little pints, especially on the bottom of foot which are connected with organs.
    When they are stimulated , organs get more nutrients with flow of blood, overall wellbeing improves. It something with Chinese Traditional Medicine which is completely different from Western medicine.
    The running for me seems risky if runners are without protection. How about small stones, pieces of glass and other obstacles?
    Your article lets to see our body from the different perspective. There are so many possibilities to achieve results and feel well.
    All the best, be healthy and wealthy, Nemira.

    1. Hi Nemira,

      Once again I am enjoying having a dialogue with you. Yes, there is a school of thought , along with evidence, that your feet , through evolution, have developed sensors that test the various surfaces that you are exposed to. The sensors develop muscles to adapt to these surfaces. However, shoes, the theory goes, interfere with the proper working of these sensors–blocking them. Thus in reality weakening your feet. I wanted to give this theory a fair hearing.

      That said, I also wanted to explore the other side of the argument. First, if you already suffer from Plantar Fasciitis or other related foot pain you need all the support you can get. So, this is a positive case for wearing shoes. Second, there are, as you mentioned, many different ways an unprotected foot can be damaged. As one of my readers pointed out: he believes that walking barefoot is beneficial but it would be unwise in his neighborhood as he lives on a city block were broken glass or a needle could easily cut or stick you.

      Finally, I too am fascinated by how Chinese Traditional Medicine provides solutions that are different from Western medicine. Always a pleasure talking to you, Nemira. All the best. Be healthy, wealthy, and happy.

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