Why run barefoot?
There are so many different types and styles of shoes on the market today, offering everything from movement correction to a range of flashy colours and designs. So why would we ever want to kick our shoes off and switch to barefoot training?
Are there really any benefits to training barefoot or in a minimal shoe? When you ask a gym user what the most important piece of kit is, they will usually say it’s their trainers. Over time we have been persuaded that we are born with ‘broken feet’, that we all have some sort of issue with our feet that only the right shoes can correct. It could be over-pronation, supination or the need for arch support – the list goes on. Can it really be that our bodies are so badly designed that we cannot function correctly without external support?
I was a child of the 70s and at primary school PE was performed in what would now be classed as a minimal shoe – the plimsoll. These had no arch support, no ankle support and just a thin piece of rubber separating us from the ground! Were we were all injured, or did we suffer terrible trouble with our feet? Well, no – I don’t remember any issues with my own feet or those of my friends. So this got me thinking. Do I really need such flashy shoes now to support me in my running, classes and training, or is it time to go back to basics?
What do you know about your feet?
The foot contains 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 muscles, ligaments and tendons, yet most shoes encourage us to use the foot as a unit. Soles are rigid and do not allow any twist or movement in the joints. Ankles are supported, reducing flexibility and arches are supported too. So what’s the result of all this support? The answer is lazy feet with muscles that have become atrophied and toes that have lost dexterity. Ask someone to move their toes individually or perform simple foot exercises and the movement is usually limited or non-existent with hands often performing the requested task instead. Ask a child to perform the same exercise and you will usually have a much better response. This lack of dexterity in the foot is usually learned – it’s something we have conditioned (or deconditioned) ourselves to rather than being something we are born with.
So can we regain these skills? In my experience the simple answer is yes. With a little time, dedication and willpower you can get more movement in your feet and toes. Think Uma Thurman in Kill Bill and “wiggle your big toe”! But why would we want to or need to? We take care in the gym to work our whole bodies, to make sure every muscle is toned and honed but unless you do yoga, Pilates or martial arts, chances are that your poor feet are neglected and don’t get the same dedication as, for example, your biceps.
Give yourself a strong base
Having a strong base to work from is a vital ingredient to working the rest of the body in an optimal way. If you have weak arches and therefore eversion at the feet, your ankles have to compensate which means your knees have to compensate, meaning your hips have to compensate and so on. There are two solutions to this problem – you can treat the symptom and support your arches with shoes or orthotics or you can treat the cause and strengthen your feet.
Let’s look at the arches as an example. The simplest exercise to strengthen the arch is to grip the floor with your toes and think about lifting the arch of your foot away from the floor. It’s that simple. It can also be incorporated into other exercises – for example adding it whilst performing a squat will not only help to strengthen your feet it will encourage glute engagement too, so you’ll be doing two exercises for the price of one! This is true for a vast number of foot exercises. We all know that the more muscles in the chain you can engage simultaneously, the more effectively the body is working, the more calories you are burning and so on. The body very rarely works muscles in isolation in the real world, so rather than starting at the legs surely it must be beneficial to start at the feet. Feeling parts of the foot in contact or not in contact with the floor can also give us vital feedback, helping us to improve technique and get more out of each exercise.
Further to this we need to appreciate that the soles of the feet are literally smothered in nerve endings – proprioceptors, there to read the ground beneath us and tell the brain what is happening. Is the ground bumpy, smooth, hot or cold? How hard should I be landing? Which part of the foot should I be landing on? When putting a well padded sole under the foot we are dampening those signals. It has been suggested that the more we pad the foot and dampen those signals the harder the foot strikes the ground to try to ‘read’ what is happening. If we are striking the floor harder are we more or less likely to cause injury regardless of our padded shoe? Can we therefore deduce that a thinner shoe that allows us to feel the floor more easily will communicate better with the brain? Should we just throw away our padded shoes and orthotics? Well, probably not. If we have conditioned our feet to accept these shoes (up to a point) and to learn a different way of moving we probably shouldn’t try to make the switch overnight.
Why is injury associated with barefoot running?
One of the reasons so many people get injured when they try barefoot running is because they don’t pull back, they don’t condition the feet to land correctly and start to gradually change the movement pattern they have learnt in their supportive shoes. Instead they try to cover the same distances or exercises they were doing previously. When barefoot, we need to land to the mid or forefoot, rather than the heel, so the arch of your foot can act as a natural shock absorber. This is generally instinctive until we train ourselves to land on our heels by padding this area.
When jumping from any kind of height such as from a chair, would you land on your heels or on the ball of your foot? Once we have learned to land on our heels we become reliant on different muscles and movement patterns. These have to be changed gradually, building strength and movement in a new sequence. It is essentially like starting over. With running, it is often recommended that when changing your style you cut right back, usually to no more than a quarter of a mile in the first week then increasing by no more than 10% per week, regardless of what distance you were previously covering. This can be terribly frustrating for a seasoned runner, but doing too much too soon is never a good thing in exercise. We must always condition the area before we start to challenge it. So how can we start this process?
It can be good to gradually reduce your support, perhaps going from a standard running or cross training shoe to a more minimal shoe that has a thinner and more flexible sole, minimal cushioning and less arch and ankle support. These may also be a good option in winter when our feet can be numbed by cold or in areas where there are likely to be ‘nasties’ on the ground.
As most gyms will not allow barefoot training for health and safety reasons, the most minimal footwear you are likely to be able to wear would be something with individual toe pockets to allow independent movement at all of the toe joints and a sole thin enough that the shoe could be rolled up and put into your pocket.
Be sure to take it slowly and condition your feet before pushing yourself too hard. Many foot exercises can be found online and you can use these to strengthen your feet or as a warm-up before running.
There are numerous sources if you wish to continue your research but at the end of the day you have to see if it is right for you. For me, it has been a liberating experience to free my feet and I see the benefits throughout my body.
Born to run – Christopher McDougall
Stacey Lei Krauss – Leading barefoot training Expert