I’m sure many of you are reading this thinking “What the hell! I would never run in bare feet. That’s impossible!”. And maybe you should stick to that theory, but maybe not…
Firstly, just to get you thinking do you think they ran before there were shoes? Or did Gronk wait until shoes were invented before he ran away from the Sabre Tooth Tiger?
Ok, now that we have cleared that up, let’s get to it.
Barefoot running is a hot topic in the fitness industry at the moment. There is heated debate on both sides of the spectrum as to wether it is a valuable training alternative, a sometimes activity that can be beneficial or for the very passionate the only way to run!
Well what is it all about and should you consider barefoot running or barefoot training yourself?
My short answer for you is: No… Not unless you prepare your body, and your feet for it! And for gods sake choose the right surface.
Firstly what are the benefits of training in your bear feet?
Well the theory is that for a long time now our running and training shoes have been getting better and better. More technology, research and money has been getting spent to try to capture a slice of the extremely lucrative trainer/runner/sneaker market. As these shoes have gotten better, more supportive and have had better cushioning our feet have gotten lazier. They are having to do less to support themselves and as a result have gotten weaker.
As a result the muscles that support our arch lack the strength to do so. Our foot is constantly held into alignment when we exercise but high destiny rubber and arch supports. Our foot is becoming like much the rest of the western world, slack and maybe even a little flabby!
It is also suggested that wearing running shoes changes our natural biomechanics. The structure of the lower leg and arch of the foot is very good as absorbing shock and transferring this into forward propulsion. This is something that is limited when wearing shoes. The natural gate is altered when wearing shoes. It is not achievable to land with your heel first when running barefoot. Just thinking about hitting the pad of your heel down onto a hard surface like a concrete or gravel path is a little painful. However with a highly cushioned supportive shoe this becomes easily achievable. Through running barefoot, or in a shoe like the ‘five fingers’ (see below) we gain a more to a more traditional striking pattern of the foot, thus using more of the natural reactive properties of the foot.
So this is where barefoot training can come to our aid. I am not suggesting for one minute that you throw away your shoes and hit the pavement tomorrow, it would end up like a scene out of Die Hard far too quickly for anyone’s liking. A stubbed toe is painful!
So what is a viable alternative? There are a lot of ways your can start to build up these muscles of your foot and lower leg before hitting the running track barefoot. This building up of the muscles of your lower leg and foot may also have other positive benefits for areas other areas of your performance. My advice on the first place to start would be to try one of a heap of the new range of ‘free fitting’ or minimalist training shoes such as the nike free or asics 33. Another barefoot inspired running shoe is the Saucony Kinvara, which as with the other two brands mentioned uses a sole with reduced cushioning and greater flexibility to encourage a more natural foot strike with the ground.
These shoes are all light weight and great for wearing whilst weight training. Be mindful not to hit it with a 10 km run first up though. Just wearing these shoes throughout your day to day activities or whilst cross training will put a lot more strain on your feet and lower leg than wearing your normal supportive running shoes. So build up to it. Don’t hit the running track in these minimalist shoes straight away.
These shoes are designed to provide less support and have your foot work that little bit harder however if you want to take this one step further then you’ll want to check out something like the Vibram 5 Fingers. They go that little further to make your feet work that little bit harder. They might make you look a little weird when your in the gym like you are going to try to peel your post work out banana with your feet, but hey the benefits may be huge for you. A client of mine has noticed a huge improvement in the tightness of her lower leg when she built up to her shorter runs whilst wearing these.
I have recently gotten myself some Vibram KSO’s so as to be able to provide a well rounded option here and I am pleasantly impressed. I have used nike free’s for my weight training for quite some time and after building up I am finding the feedback the Vibram’s are giving me through the soles of my feet another benefit which I had not expected. They are helping me to balanced better with single legged activities such as pistol squats and the like.
My recommendation if you are looking to get a bit of an edge by going barefoot, or if you are looking to add some barefoot training into your program to complement what you are currently doing in a well rounded approach, start in the gym. There are not many gyms that will allow you in there barefoot, with good reason (dropping a 20kg plate on your toe and leaving it behind might leave a mess and be a little off putting for fellow gym users). So my advice would be to use one of the multitude of shoes out there to help enhance foot strength whilst you are weight training.
If you are wanting to progress to wearing these less supportive shoes whilst running start with short distances to build up the strength of the supporting structures and muscles before going all out. Just as you would deadlift before you start snatching you need to build up the support system before tackling anything too long distance barefoot, or even in these stripped back shoes. Just remember if you do progress to total barefoot running rather than using a minimalist shoe chose your locations wisely. Run on grass and survey the area you are to be running on first. A puncture wound to your foot will really put the brakes on your training.
As far as being subjective and allowing people to make their own assessment on controversial matters such as this I think is a great idea. Now I could be considered a fence sitter here and possibly I am. I can feel the splinters now! So I have decided to provide two links to some great blogs on both the for and against arguments on barefoot running.
Running Barefoot Is Bad – Name gives you the idea of which angle this blog comes from.
The Running Barefoot – Coming from the other side of the argument.
So my advice… as I slowly and gingerly climb off the fence. Don’t become a crazy person turning up to fun run, or marathon barefoot, but do consider adding some barefoot or minimalist style shoe training into your overall program to aid it in a well rounded way. If you are finding you are getting a lot of lower leg injuries with your current foot wear, but up to minimalist shoe for your shorter runs. I would still say to look for something reasonably supportive for anything longer than 10km’s though, even if you are well trained and used to a minimalist shoe. If it is however part your sport that that certain footwear is required such as football, then try to do as much of your running as is achievable in the footwear you will compete in. Reserve the minimalist shoes for your time in the gym. Cross training or weight training in the gym in minimalist shoes would be my recommendation as part of a well rounded program to give you an edge.