Thursday 17 November 2011

Barefoot Running

We are always looking for ways to avoid injury, to improve our performance, to grow in wisdom and understanding and discover a path to success. This is the same for everyone who exercises, whatever your area of expertise or interest. But for runners and sports men and women, who run as a fundamental aspect of their training, is barefoot running the secret we have long been looking for as an answer to our prayers? Does barefoot running reduce injury rate? Does it strengthen the body in ways shod runners cannot? Does it increase the enjoyment of running or the euphoric 'runners high' we long to regularly experience? And are shoes really bad for our feet, our body and therefore ultimately, our health?

Well, lets start with the basics of what science has already proven, and the simple answer is: Nothing! More evidence is needed to conclude whether barefoot and minimalist shod running will definitely 1) reduce injury and 2) improve performance. There is very limited coverage of the subject in terms of solid scientific researching to this date. Does this therefore mean we should close the book, put it to the back of our minds, forget it for a while until gold standard evidence tells us the final verdict? Well, the simple answer to that question is NO.

Science can often take its time, and quite rightfully for that matter, in deciding the truth, fact or fiction, yes or no. This is because haste and rushed decisions lead to errors. It takes time to look at a subject from all angles, and it takes time for the results to show in many circumstances. This is especially true when dealing with the human body. In terms of barefoot running, it will take science a long time to tell us the actual proven benefits of barefoot running. Why? Here are a few reasons:

1) What will be the long term effects? It may take years to find this out on subjects transitioning to barefoot running
2) What other activities did the subjects do before transitioning?
3) What other activity are the subjects partaking in during the study period?
4) Are injuries that subjects get during studies caused by barefoot running or a lifetime of weakening the body wearing shoes, then rushing too quickly into barefoot running believing it to be some sort of panacea?
5) In people who are often barefoot, such as tribesmen in other countries and African children (both types of people are often quoted as examples of the benefits of being barefoot) what other factors may affect their performance (terrain, diet, hydration, clothing, massage, stretching, lifestyle, etc). It may not just be the fact that they are barefoot that helps their performance or injury prevention.
6) How long does it take the body to adapt fully to barefoot running? Are we testing subjects too soon in studies?
7) Are the benefits of barefoot running suitable for everyone, or a certain type of person?
8) Are the tests that studies use suitable or are other confounding factors affecting both positive and negative outcomes of the studies?

Basically, the subject of barefoot running is too new for science to tell us a definitive answer.

So why do I barefoot and bareform run (running in minimalist shoes)? Well, the answer lies in personal experimentation and experience, and a little thought. Consider the following: human beings have run mile upon mile, day after day across a variety of soft and hard surfaces, trails and mountains, for millions of years. How did they do it? The answer is, 'certainly not in cushioned, arch supporting and high heeled trainers'. No, they would have run either barefoot or bareform; running barefoot style with an animal skin/fur covering over the foot to protect against cold, hot and environmental conditions. Why then, after millions of years evolving the human foot should we suddenly wear today's trainers? The answer is that today's trainers probably weaken the foot structure and lower leg, resulting in an altered foot strike and a multitude of injuries throughout the body. I believe we are designed and created with everything we need to run miles and miles.

Personal experience and experimentation: My Story
I had nothing to lose. I hated running. I just did it once in a while to 'burn fat' and stay 'heart healthy'. I was powerlifting and had no time or interest for running. In fact, it was worse than that. Every time I ran it resulted in a terribly painful bad back. Not just aches, but sharp pains that left me unable to function properly, or exercise for the next couple of days. As I grew apart from powerlifting I tried running more frequently as I have always preferred to be outside if I can be, training in nature and the fresh air. But the pain after running never disappeared, in fact, as the miles increased so did the debilitating back aches.

To cut a very long story short, a friend who was studying sports rehabilitation at University happened to suggest that he had heard forefoot running was the natural way to run, not heel striking, and would therefore maybe help my problem as a heel striker in large, heavy, foamy and padded running shoes. Out I went to see if I indeed was a heel striker, not realising that running could be done in different ways! I thought there was one way to run, and everyone naturally knew how to do it. I was so wrong! As I flumped my way along the grassy route around Twickenham Green, London, I realised just how heavy footed and loud I was when I ran, often drowned out by the blare of my MP3 player. I had some serious work to do. Like I have already said; I had nothing to lose, I hated running!

Learning to run on my forefoot/mid foot took some serious practice, but I was seriously determined. My calves ached like I have never experienced before reminding my brain that they actually existed after years of little use. It literally was one step at a time learning this new skill. I invested in a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, as I also soon realised it was almost impossible to run correctly with huge-healed trainers designed for heel striking. The gap between heel and floor when the forefoot lands is actually quite minimal much to some people's surprise. Therefore, even when attempting a forefoot strike the heel would 'get in the way' and force me too far onto the forefoot, aggravating my calves further.

Buying my first pair of vibrams was one of the most liberating and sense awakening moments of my life. I could feel the ground, I felt my balance gradually increasing, my mind began to enjoy running for the first time in my life, really enjoy running in fact!!! I became more connected with my body and what it was telling me, and more connected with the environment around me. I ditched the MP3 player as boredom no longer became a factor in any of my runs.

Movement, simple movement, became a sheer pleasure.

The rest, as they say, is history. I now love running so much, especially trails and dirt tracks, that I now have the opposite problem from that which I started with. I simply cannot get enough of it. This can lead to a very common barefoot runners problem; enjoying running so much we end up running too much, too hard, too far, too many times and risking injury. This has happened to me recently; too many long runs has left me with IT band syndrome. This has taught me to respect the limitations of my body, something all runners and athletes need to understand and accept.

Here I will provide a short list of the benefits I have noticed since barefoot/bareform running:

  • the muscles, ligaments and tendons in my feet have strengthened
  • my arch has strengthened and got higher
  • I am able to walk and run barefoot on surfaces I once could not
  • my calves have grown in circumference by 4cm and strengthened
  • My legs are stronger
  • I can run pain free (backache)
  • Niggles I once had are a thing of the past
  • My running technique/form has improved
  • I am running 4x the distance I once could in trainers
  • I completed my first marathon in minimalist shoes (Merrell Trail Glove)
  • I love running so so much now. Its an absolute pleasure to run

So, to barefoot or not to barefoot? That is your choice!
Is barefoot and bareform running the answer to improved performance and reduced injury? As far as science is concerned, only time will tell, and it may be some time far in the future until we get our answer. What I can tell you though, is that it will improve the enjoyment factor, that is for sure.

What would I therefore suggest? Give it a go and see for yourself. Wearing minimalist shoes such as the Vibrams, New Balance Minimus or Merrell Trail Glove will provide you with the protection you need from the environment whilst still allowing the bio mechanics and feel of barefoot running (see my post on minimalist shoes).

Make the transition to a healthier, more natural way of running today and discover the sheer pleasure, the excitement, the thrill and connectivity with your body and your surrounding environment.

Happy Running everyone


Disclosure: if you do decide to bin your trainers and run barefoot you MUST take your time to transition slowly. Minimalist shoes can reduce the risk of puncture and abrasion injuries, but the muscles and connective tissues need to adapt, and this takes time. Walk barefoot for a couple of weeks, then slowly run only for a few minutes at a time. Build up slowly, and if your body hurts or tells you to slow down, listen! Have a few days off and reduce the mileage. If you run a lot and are not willing to take it right back to basics, run only a small fraction barefoot/bareform and build up slowly as your body allows you too. Years of weakening from shoes can mean years of building back up again. PLEASE take your time.

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