At the 1960 Olympics in Rome Ethiopian Abebe Bikila set a world-record 2:15:17 marathon – running barefoot. Now, a growing movement suggests that running barefoot – or at least with minimum cushioning and protection – has massive benefits.
In the past I have always chosen my running shoes purely on looks. I know, it’s kind of ridiculous. But I just didn’t buy into the whole concept of having to completely cushion your feet. Nor do I see the need to scientifically match the support structure of your shoe to protect your arches and ankles.
Our bodies evolved running, as I understand.
I always thought that running is one of the most natural things we can do – and so I assumed our feet and ankles were built to do it straight-up. That means without having to rely on artificial support to keep our ankles and feet cushioned and supported.
Over thousands of years of running, clearly we didn’t always have fully supported shoes. And yet, we, and our feet, are potentially capable of amazing endurance, running barefoot or minimally supported.
So it must be possible. But why aren’t we doing it? The answer is simply conditioning.
Back in the 70’s Nike decided to put padding under our heels. Such shoes were the must-haves for the growing number of runners and fitness enthusiasts.
Old Nikes – padding on the heel and arch will grow for the next 20 years
But with increased padding under our heels, our running style changed. We started landing on our heels, because now the heel was the softest and most shock-absorbent part of the foot.
But naturally, our heels were never designed for landing on. Sure, it’s the most economical way to walk. But walking is low-impact. When running we have to take much larger impacts.
What is the largest and softest single area of the foot? It’s not the heel – it’s the forefoot.
The fastest runners have a style quite similar to that of a person running without shoes. They absorb shock by landing lightly on their forefeet rather than on their heels, and their landing leg is beneath the torso, with the leg slightly bent to absorb impact.
The barefoot running technique has been described as falling forward. It has also been described as gently kissing the ground with the balls of your feet.
(Source: The Barefoot Route)
So it may be that the shoes we have started wearing have taken us away from what was our natural barefoot running style. Have you ever considered running and landing lightly on your forefeet? Probably not. Because with all the support your heel gets inside conventional running shoes, you never really have had to.
But if you try running without shoes on a hard surface, I imagine you couldn’t go long landing on your heel.
What does this mean?
If our shoes are indeed encouraging us to use our feet not in the manner in which they are intended, we may be missing out on developing their true strength and flexibility.
Only when we begin to use all of the muscles in our feet in the intended way can we run our fastest.
If you are interested in rediscovering your natural running style, it is a fairly simple process. You can even keep your heel-supported shoes.
The two key things to focus on become:
1.Where your foot hits the ground, relative to your body. Now, the goal is for your foot to land more directly below your body, not way out in front. It helps to lean forward a little more when you are running to practice this.
2. Secondly, you want your forefeet to hit the ground first – lightly. This will happen much more naturally now that your feet are landing below your body.
I don’t need to say any more. This brilliant video from Newton Running explains it all. You should watch this.
What will happen when you run in this barefoot style is you will feel the arches of your feet much more. Your arches will no longer be taken out of play and simply sit there doing nothing, surrounded by comfy padding. You will start to use their inherent strength. It will be nice to feel some strength in them after a long time of rest.
Laboratory studies show that the plantar arch alone returns at least 17 percent of the energy of impact. Running shoes have largely replaced our arches, but they are neither as effective nor as durable. Barefoot runners can clearly do as well as shoed runners, but it takes time to develop the strength in the foot to use our natural arch fully.
(Source: The Barefoot Route)
Want to take it one step further? There has been a fairly obvious trend amongst running shoes over the last couple of years to reduce the sole padding and provide a more barefoot-running-like experience. Products like Nike Free have proven popular.
My current running shoe has little arch support
Shoe manufacturer Vibram have taken things one step further: the five-finger shoe.
Yes, it sounds ridiculous, and looks pretty funny too. But they are on to something. A five-finger shoe allows you to feel like you are barefoot – and so promote the natural and most effective running and walking gait. And it provides all the protection of a shoe, so you can walk on any surface (like normal). You can grip the ground like you are barefoot. You can develop strength in your toes again.
Clearly there is much less padding in these shoes, and very little arch support. But remember, your goal is to develop the strength back in your arches, so this is perfect.
Experiment with the running style first. I’ve heard people report massive reductions in chronic lower back pain once they start running in this way and regaining the strength back in their feet muscles.
Start of slowly, maybe up to 20 minutes at a time focusing on where your foot lands, and having it land lightly on the forefoot first and then touching down at the heel. And maybe next time you buy new running shoes you will have developed sufficient strength and feel in your feet to go for a ‘freer’ type of shoe.
Or even one with five-fingers.
More? A scientific study into why barefoot running works here.