Barefoot Running For The Rest Of Us

Not All or Nothing

Running shoes are not all good. While almost nobody heel strikes barefoot, four out of five runners become heel strikers in shoes. This distortion introduces a huge initial impact shock on foot strike that the legs must absorb, and has a performance-killing braking effect, increases ground contact time, and reduces joint stability. Shoes also add weight to the foot and alter stride mechanics in ways that reduce running efficiency compared to barefoot running. And habitually wearing shoes weakens the muscles of the foot and lower leg.

On the other hand, as I stated above, switching to barefoot running as a means of addressing these effects of wearing shoes is a major undertaking that carries its own risks and whose payoff in terms of reduced injury risk may be only marginal. But does it have to be all or nothing? Do runners have no choice but to live with either the shortcomings of running in shoes or the shortcomings of running barefoot? Thankfully not. It is possible to have the best of both worlds by following these three guidelines.

1. Wear the least running shoe that’s most comfortable for you.

Again, the best running shoe for you is the most comfortable one. But there’s more than one running shoe on the market that you can run comfortably in, so, with the advantages of barefoot running in mind, choose the lightest shoe with the least structure and cushioning that does not sacrifice comfort. This will minimize the drawbacks of shod running. For example, I run in Nike Free 3.0’s and Nike LunaRacers, both of which are actually lighter than the Vibram foot wrappings that many “barefoot” runners wear!

2. Do a little barefoot running.

Recently I had an opportunity to study Kara Goucher’s training logs. In them I found a small smattering of barefoot running. Once or twice a week Goucher runs a mile or two barefoot on grass as a cooldown after a workout. Doing so strengthens her feet and lower leg muscles so that she can then use them in her shoes the way full-time barefoot runners always use those muscles.

How much barefoot running is enough? I recommend that you very gradually build up to doing enough barefoot running so that it doesn’t cause soreness in your lower legs the next morning. That’s a good sign that it has had the desired strengthening effect. A few miles per week should do the trick. Unless you live close to the beach or on your own private golf course, I think the best place to practice barefoot running is actually on a treadmill, which is a lot more pliant a surface than the road and in that respect much more like the surfaces our ancestors ran barefoot on.

3. Deal with your heel strike, one way or another.

The thorniest issue is the heel strike introduced into the strides of 80 percent of runners by their shoes. What’s weird is that it’s the most naturally gifted 20 percent of runners who automatically remain midfoot and forefoot strikers even when clodhoppers are placed on their feet. I have no idea why this is so, but whatever the reason is, this special minority of runners are lucky, because they get to enjoy the advantages of shoes without having to find ways to undo footwear’s biggest drawback.

The reason the heel strike is such a thorny problem for the rest of us is that heel striking is, in fact, the natural way for us to run in shoes. Therefore, it’s very difficult to correct the problem by consciously forcing a midfoot landing in shoes. You might think that switching to more minimal shoes would make it a little easier, but honestly I have found that I can still heel strike in my Nike Frees. You might also think that running a few miles per week barefoot would teach your body different movement patterns that would then bleed over into your shod running, but this seldom works, either. Your body doesn’t need to be taught to land on the midfoot when running. It simply naturally does that when you’re shoeless and equally naturally adopts a heel strike when you put shoes on.

So, how can you address the heel strike issue without going 100 percent barefoot? While consciously retraining your gait is difficult and fraught, I believe it’s worth the effort for many runners. Generally I am not a big fan of forced stride changes, but I make an exception for heel strike correction. Like all consciously made stride changes, this one will probably make you less efficient for a while, and it may never stick, but overall I think it’s actually less disruptive to the flow of the average runner’s training than going barefoot.

The other thing you can do is try some of the common measures runners use to address the consequences of heel striking. For example, lifting weights to increase your muscle strength (and with it the stability of your joints) is likely to reduce the number of injuries you suffer as a result of heel striking. And, dare I say it, getting fitted for prescription orthotics may also help by managing the excessive foot pronation that is caused by heel striking.

Sometimes in life you can’t go backwards, and the best you can do is to find the best way forward from where you are.


Check it Matt’s latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.

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