What is Barefoot Running?

Curious about the barefoot running trend and if barefoot running might be for you? Turns out at its root, barefoot running isn’t a trend at all. In fact if you think about it, barefoot running has been the evolutionary mobilization of humans since they started standing upright on two feet.

In his popular book Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall details the running practices of Tarahumara Indians in Mexico who reside tucked away in the Copper Canyons. Often barefoot or wearing incredibly rudimentary sandals with flat bottoms, this tribe of native Tarahumarans would run hundreds of miles without pain or injury.

In today’s fitness world of expensive shoes designed to make you run faster, play sports better, and prevent you from incurring injury, it’s baffling to imagine running long distances without any cushioning, motion control, or ankle stabilization like shoes provide. Many runners, however, are finding that shod running, or running with shoes, actually negatively alters running form and performance.

The belief is that natural running form like you find with barefoot running actually involves body mechanics that are better for posture, joint impact, and endurance. Unlike shod running where the heel of the foot strikes the ground first followed by the mid and forefoot, barefoot running requires runners to strike first with the forefoot. Initial impact with the forefoot is then followed by pronation of the lateral ball of the foot followed by the heel to distribute the rest of your weight.

This type of running mechanics can increase your stride frequency and decrease contact time according to 2014 study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. Barefoot running also requires more from the muscles and tendons in your feet, helping to strengthen both the foot as well as the ankle for potentially increased endurance and performance.

You might think that barefoot running is painful and increases risk of injury, i.e. stepping on glass or other debris on the ground. You would be right up to a point. Early transition from shod to barefoot running can be painful, especially if you strike your heel first like you do with shod running. This will send pain searing up your leg, and quickly implore you to adjust your running style to an initial forefoot strike. Thousands of nerve endings in the bottom of the foot will also send back signals of pain and discomfort as your feet adjust to contact with the ground and everything that comes with it, dirt, leaves, rocks, and so on.

The middle ground between barefoot and shod running is employing minimalist shoes when running to add a minimal amount of cushioning to the bottom of the foot. Minimalist shoes don’t offer any arch support or ankle stabilization; instead they form a thick mold around the shape of the foot and toes, helping you to maintain a barefoot running pronation with less discomfort. Experts recommend first beginning a habit of walking barefoot to help your foot get used to the sensation and build up calluses. Then start a slow running schedule, building up mileage week to week, but never more than 10% at a time.

The nature of barefoot running also promotes enhanced flexibility and springiness to your stride which can aid knee, hip, and back health, similar to wearing a lower back brace for running. Better body mechanics create better running form and posture which will prevent you from overstriding, leaning forward when you run, and placing undue stress on low back muscles and the knee joint.

Barefoot running isn’t for everyone, however, if shod running is taking its toll on your body, you might want to consider this more challenging alternative. After-all, it did your ancient ancestors good and helped them cover the globe before shoes even existed.

 

Image courtesy of [baconstudio] at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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