Barefoot or minimal shoe running seems to be all the rage these days with nearly every shoe company making something for this new market. Some may view it as a fad, but all you have to do is step back and look at it from a historical viewpoint to see that it’s anything but a fad. We aren’t born with space age fancy air-gel-soles on our feet with super arch support and a padded heel. Why would we, now, suddenly in the last 50 to 100 years, need such inventions just to get by doing what we’ve been doing for a million years?
The biggest difference seems to be in the type of running technique we employ, fore (or mid) foot striking vs. heel striking.
It seems clear to me that we weren’t meant to heel run, just look at the body position and dynamics of it. If you’re striking with your heel you’re also straight legged, this transfers all of that road shock through each joint until it dissipates. Ultra padded soles have to be worn to protect our joints from this impact, and all it really does is soften it. Seems if your body needs something as new as a padded sole you’re doing something wrong. Or at the very least something your body wasn’t meant to do. Just stand up, and with no shoes on, very slightly hop on your heels. Hurts doesn’t it?
On the other hand look at what happens when you run on the balls of your feet. Your foot strike almost requires a bent knee using the ankle as a fulcrum. Which along with the strength in your calf produces a second class lever with a great, built in, shock absorber. Now, do the same standing exercise only now hop on the balls of your feet. Notice the difference?
Look at phrases you typically hear in other sports: “Stay on your toes”, “You were caught on your heels” and “Drive forward”. How do you drive forward on your heels?
I ran track all through my jr. and high school years, as a sprinter. Something that struck me right away with barefoot running was how much it reminds me of sprinting. From the shoes to the stride. Sprinter’s shoes have almost zero heel to toe angle, no arch & ankle support, and are almost the definition of minimal. Now, I didn’t do any real distance running in those shoes, but they were far from the normal running shoe.
As for the stride, when sprinting you’re taught to jut your foot straight out in front of you and then pull the foot back angling the ball of your foot down slightly, as if you’re a dog digging a hole or a cat pawing at a mouse. The foot strike happens under your hips and then pushes you forward by completing the stride. You’re also suppose to lean forward slightly which I think opens your hips up to more fully extend that foot backward (opening your stride). Shifting your weight forward also creates almost a falling affect on your body, this helps with efficiency and speed.
During my last barefoot training interval (5 minutes walking, 5 minutes running) I really started noticing that sprinter stride coming out. Before I knew it I was on a 8:30 pace, where my normal pace is around the 10:00 mark. I slowed down a bit since this is just interval training to ease myself into running barefoot. But, it did show me that once you get things set you really can move like this, and comfortably too.
If you’re new to this style of running you have a lot of old/bad habits learned over time, and your muscles aren’t used to running like this, so you have to go slow. My first time out I pushed myself too hard and ended up sidelined for days waiting for my calves to recover. Don’t do this! Ease into it, your legs and feet will thank you.
All in all I’m enjoying getting into what I consider a more true running form. As a long time knee pain sufferer I’m also hoping it helps me reduce pain and injury. I can’t wait to see what happens when my body is fully in tune with running barefoot!