Setting the feet free: barefoot running

by Carson Boddicker

Lately it seems that barefoot training is becoming more and more popular among the runners of the world. Surely there has always been the camp that was in favor of “minimalism” but it is beginning to catch on at a greater rate. Perhaps it’s because people have become tired with the 80% injury rate associated with our sport. Perhaps the trickle down from the experts has finally hit the general public. Perhaps we have just lost our love for the commercial shoe brand. Perhaps Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run, has changed running.

Regardless of the exact cause, I love it. For as long as I’ve been doing this, I’ve been a fan of getting people out of the big and cushy “trainers” and into a less substantial shoe. Why? First off the modern shoe has an elevated heel relative to the forefoot, leaving the foot in relative plantar flexion. Next the shoe is composed of a soft and cushy foam that desensitizes the organs in the feet that provide awareness of your body’s place in time and space. This is a huge issue as it allows (or even encourages) the runner to take a longer stride without gaining the requisite hip height to allow the foot to strike the ground directly below the hip and knee. When the foot strikes out in front of the body, the ground contact times get longer (read: you get slower) and the braking forces on the body are much greater. The soft sole of the shoe also leads to a great deal of energy lost from the lower leg spring system. The lower leg is composed of relatively short muscles and long tendons that act like springs. Bosch and Klomp report that the bare foot is capable of returning upwards of 90% or the energy put into the ground, however, Alexander and Bennet have reported that a soft-midsole reduces the energy return to 40-50%. That’s a lot of wasted energy. Lastly, softer midsoles have been demonstrated to allow significantly greater pronation than in shoes with harder midsoles or in athletes running unshod. As overpronation an lead to a gamut of nasty issues like Achilles’ tendinopathy, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and stress fractures, it makes sense to attempt to correct the problem.

In progressing my athletes to barefoot running, I used to have the athletes start with their trainers and drop them down to a “performance trainer” to a “marathon flat” until we were doing some running each week unshod. Simple application of the progressive overload principle, right? Not so fast! After hearing Chris McDougall talk about it, I believe I may have been getting suboptimal results. Chirs suggested that the first step is actually to go barefoot at the beginning as it will help re-groove the body’s stride patterns by providing instantaneous feedback to body. As injuries are always a concern in people transitioning to barefoot running, it is necessary to note that the body will immediately change its mechanics by shortening your stride and slowing you down thus reducing your potential for injury risk. As with anything, however, you should ease into barefoot training and pay attention to your body so as not to inflict damage.

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