When I went for my easy run yesterday I did something that most runners would consider rather unusual: I took my shoes off. I have soft pampered feet so I waited until I came off the trails and found a smooth bit of tarmac in the hope that it wouldn’t hurt too much. I removed my shoes, carried one in each hand, and kept my socks on, then I simply started to run. At first my legs weren’t sure what to do, but after a few strides I was up on my toes turning my legs over much faster than normal. Read on to find out why on earth you might want to try this as well.
One very good reason for barefoot running is quite straightforward. It is the way that we, as humans, evolved to run. Our feet are incredibly complex pieces of machinery and by putting them in soft pampered shoes we lose a lot of the benefits that our feet evolved to give us. In shoes we no longer have a direct feel for the ground, this causes our feet to stamp down harder, whether you like it or not, and it actually increases the impact forces that shoot up your leg and through your knees, hips and spine with each step. Our feet are so sensitive that they will automatically correct themselves as they run to help you avoid injury and pain when being used as nature intended. One theory of barefoot running is that it is so natural that it wont actually cause your body to wear out, whereas running in soft shoes will potentially cause hip and knee problems later in life, as well as shorter term stress injuries and niggles.
Why are you only telling me this now?
The short answer is: MONEY! Large running shoe companies were developed based on a flawed theory that you need a squidgy yet structured shoe to correct all that is wrong with your gait and they invested a lot of money in selling this to us. It sounds totally plausible, but it looks more and more likely that it was an incorrect theory in the first place. To use an example from the excellent “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall [review here] the arch is one of the strongest structures known to man, and it gets stronger and stronger as more weight is put on it. No engineer worth his salt would put any form of support under the middle of an arch, yet this is what you are doing with running shoes, thereby weakening rather than strengthening your foot.
When you start running barefoot you are regressing to how you used to run as a child, but you need to do it in small doses to allow those muscles and tendons throughout your foot to build up. Done right you should find that some rather odd things start happening. Firstly your arch will likely raise up as it develops and gets stronger, possibly resulting in you having to go down a shoe size. Secondly your foot will get wider from spreading out when it touches the ground as it tries to find as much purchase as possible.
For me this is all theory at the moment, but I would definitely recommend reading Born to Run if want a bit more detail and some decent references for further reading.
How did I find my first attempt?
I felt a bit like Bambi when I first removed my shoes. My legs weren’t quite sure what to do. As I took a few strides things started to sort themselves out. My knees bent a little bit to absorb the impact from the tarmac and I rose up onto the balls of my feet. Also my cadence went up significantly as my stride shortened. I was soon cruising along feeling incredibly comfortable. The only pain that I felt was from the cold ground chilling my feet through my socks. A few hundred meters later I popped my shoes back on. It was only then that I realised just how spongy they are, it felt like I had literally strapped a mattress to each foot. The other thing that I noticed was how noisy shoes are compared to bare feet, clomp…clomp…clomp! I went around the corner and took my shoes off again, running the last mile along a cycle path carrying them in my hands. I probably looked a bit daft, but it felt really nice. In total I was running for about 15 minutes in bare feet, they didn’t get sore and I didn’t notice any other niggles or pains. It really did feel very nice and very natural.
I am now shopping around for the best barefoot shoes that I can find for both trail and road running. hopefully the UK Vibram Fivefingers importer will be interested enough to let me setup an account for the Bike Run Swim shop. We shall see.
Barefoot running may or may not be for you, however I would urge you to try it. If you normally use orthotics then it is very likely that a small amount of natural barefoot running will strengthen your feet so that you don’t need to rely on the orthotics quite so much. if in doubt I would suggest that you discuss things with your GP or a podiatrist, however a lot of them are still basing their advice on the fact that support shoes are the way to fix you, so you need to be careful. Whatever you do remember to try it in small steps and be open minded about the results and the advice that you are given.