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On barefoot running

Barefoot running is a fairly new and growing movement in the world of running. Today, I entered this world, but not necessarily out of choice. Well, no one forced me to run barefoot on the hotel treadmill but I wanted to have a quick workout and didn’t pack my running shoes. So barefoot I went.

Despite the look I received from the only other exerciser, my workout was pain-free (despite a new blister or two). It was actually quite liberating. I have strayed from running over the last two years due to a knee injury I acquired from over-training for a half marathon. I also experience lower back pain (who doesn’t really) which is exacerbated by running, especially on incline.  Yet, I ran for 2o minutes with only a mild sensation of pain in the knee and not a tingle in the back. During the run, I felt that I was running more upright, taking smaller strides and more aware of how my feet were hitting the ground. I felt more in control of my stride and my body position.

So what is barefoot running? It is exactly as it sounds. Running in bare feet. Some adopters choose to run in a thin-soled running shoe or these weird rubber things with individual spots for each toe (click here to see http://barefootrunningshoes.org/). I think they look creepy, but if they protect your feet from pebbles, small shards of glass or any other icky substance on the ground then that is a definite positive.

Why all the hype? Well firstly, it challenges everything we have come to accept about running and athletics over the past 30 years. People love being unique and this is definitely a unique movement. Secondly, researchers are beginning to objectively show the differences in gait when people are shod or unshod. Not surprisingly, when you are not wearing running shoes you run differently.

If you take a quick look at the above picture (I know, it’s small) you will see the difference in the position of the foot between the unshod and shod foot. When we run in shoes we tend to do something called heel striking. When we run without shoes we tend to land more on the ball or middle of our foot. This position lightens the force that our feet and joints experience upon impact with the ground. With all the fancy dancy gels and padding in our running shoes we are unable to feel this force, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Heel striking increases the impact that our feet and joints experience and is therefore more deleterious in the long-run. 

Where am I getting this information from? Researchers at Harvard University recently published an article outlining these differences in movement and stress experienced on the joints. It is definitely worth taking a look at if you can (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100127134241.htm – this is the link the article which references the authors).

Lieberman, the Harvard researcher, states that running on the ball of the foot makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. In the journal article, he briefly discusses the development of the human foot. He states that the strong longitudinal arch that developed in the genus Homo improves the mass-spring mechanics of running by storing and releasing elastic energy. This arch is not strongly utilized when running in supportive, gel-padded running shoes. Yet, in barefoot running the arch is better utilized thus improving elastic energy storage and release. With improved energy efficiency, the longer one can run without fatigue (thus demonstrating why this evolutionary adaptation was selected for).  

So, am I 100% sold on barefoot running? No. Why? Firstly, I have only tried it once. It would be wrong of me to jump on the bandwagon after only one shot at it. Secondly, it’s a recent movement in the running world and the long-term health consequences (if any) remain unclear. However, it is a unique experience and one that I think all should try.

My only recommendation (OK two recommendations) is to a) avoid alley ways and b) start in short bursts. You need to build up some callouses and also the muscles in your arch and foot before engaging in long bouts of barefoot running. My big toe is not currently my friend, but will be soon with more exposure to both the treadmill and earths glorious surface.

M

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