I’ve often been plagued with running injuries but have always had a hunch that it’s not to do with the running, per se, but more to do with my foot strike, a lack of support structures in my feet, lazy muscles in my lower limbs, as well as sometimes overdoing it. Prompted by a book I’ve recently read, ”Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, I have returned to barefoot running in order to improve my chances of staying injury free. At first this seems counter-intuitive when wrapping our feet in thick soled shoes has become the norm, but with some careful planning, I’m hoping that barefoot will improve the natural recoil and protection in my feet and allow me to run injury free.
Clearly, if you just throw away your running shoes, and head off barefoot, you could do yourself some damage. So my approach has been to go for a normal run (in running shoes) and then on reaching a suitable area, do a small amount of barefoot. When I started barefoot, I did a normal 5 mile run, and around 1 minute of barefoot in the middle (when I reached some grass). I just carry my shoes and socks with me, though you could leave them and come back to them (who’s going to steal a smelly pair of running shoes?!).
I literally go barefoot, although you could obviously get some barefoot shoes (an oxymoron if ever I heard one). Totally barefoot is not like you might imagine though. It’s actually very easy on the feet and feels fine. Obviously you have to choose the correct terrain and damp grass (early morning) seems the best.
There is also the issue of stepping on something sharp, although this is much less of a problem than you might think. I ran across a sandy beach this week (in Bournemouth, UK) which was literally strewn with sharp stones and found it very easy to pick my way through them without touching a single one. I guess your body has had plenty of practice at accurately placing your feet and I found that it was very easy to do. A similar thing happens if you are running barefoot in your local park – any objects on the floor that get in the way are easily avoided.
A barefoot running friend of mine advised me to start off on concrete/tarmac. This seems counter intuitive, but the thinking is, that by running on a hard surface, you are forced to avoid ”heal strike”. All of a sudden the big thick heal from your shoes has disappeared, so you lean forwards, go up on your forefoot, take smaller steps, bend your knees slightly, no longer heal strike and hey presto … you are running how you should! I have tried running on sand, grass, tarmac and other surfaces and have found that they all have their merits.
The main thing that you notice after a barefoot run, is that your calves ache like hell! You can be a regular runner, and do a run that wouldn’t normally tax you at all, but put a bit of bare foot in the middle and it appears to wake up muscles that haven’t been used for years. This is certainly the thinking behind barefoot. Your feet contain 25% of the bodies bones, 33 joints, and 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. These form arches and structures to give your feet natural suspension and recoil. Once your feet are wrapped in shoes, much of this support structure switches off. The force from the road then goes up your legs and gives you ankle, knee and hip injuries, all too familiar to runners.
Anyway, so far so good. I’m sticking with my principle of starting off on a normal run in shoes, and then on reaching a suitable point doing a small amount of barefoot. I am currently up to about 10 minutes of barefoot in the middle of a 50 minute run. This should be enough to stimulate my foot muscles, tendons and ligaments and thereby improve the support structures of my feet. I can already feel my plantar fascia strengthening up and my natural arch returning to my feet. My running style has already improved (shorter strides, on my forefeet, knees slightly bent, and no heal strike). The overall aim of this, for me, is to keep injuries at bay and thereby indirectly increase my speed, by virtue of the fact that my training won’t be interrupted. So, the barefoot, I think, won’t make me faster, it is more the fact that my training will be more consistent and less interrupted by injuries. I’ll have to wait and see!
Author: Mark Ballard, www.allshapesandsizes.co.uk