Barefoot Running: Back to Basics

Barefoot Running: Back to Basics

by Dr. Matt Fontaine With all the hype of late on barefoot running due largely from the popularity of the book Born To Run  by Christopher McDougall,   I thought it appropriate to weigh in on this issue.  The concept of barefoot running has been around for many years in many cultures all over the world, as McDougall describes in his book.  The key concepts to recognize for the modern day runner is that most of us have been raised to walk on manmade surfaces(roads and sidewalks) that have been evenly paved and smoothed out.  Adding to which, we have spent our entire lives in built up shoes with cushioned soles and even arch supports.  Contrast this with tribes like the Tarahumara that McDougall highlights in his book, who have spent their entire lives walking and running barefoot on natural, uneven terrain, and do so injury free well into the later years of their lives.  How can they do that?  Why do we suffer so many running injuries despite expensive running shoes and years of engineering making these shoes better? A lifetime of barefoot running and walking has led the Tarahumara people to develop a wider foot structure, with much stronger foot intrinsic muscles and much better balance and coordination of the foot, ankle and lower leg muscles.  As such, we cannot expect someone who has spent their life walking and running on smooth surfaces and in shoes to just go cold turkey and hang up their running shoes. The problem for modern day runners they do not possess enough strength, balance and coordination of the lower leg and foot intrinsic muscles that control the foot and ankle.  They also lack proper balance and coordination required to adjust to the ground as the foot strikes the ground during running.  Therefore, if barefoot running is a goal, you must approach it in a way that slowly trains these muscles to adapt gradually to be able to run barefoot. Below are some recommended guidelines for implementing a safe progression from running in sneakers to barefoot running.  Keep in mind, there are different foot types, some of which may be better suited for barefoot running. At Tri-Core Performance Therapy, we utilize the Functional Movement Screen™ that was developed by Physical Therapist Gray Cook.

  • Cook states with looking into barefoot running it is important to clear up the Big 3 movements:  Deep squat, In line lunge, and Hurdle step.  These three movements look at mobility, stability and balance of the foot and ankle, knee, hip, lumbar spine and pelvis in relation to each other during the movement.
  • We then must evaluate single leg balance.  We can also evaluate the effect of an orthotic on balance.  If balance is better with an orthotic then we may need to use a corrective orthotic for a few months to re-pattern the arch of the foot.
  • After a few months in the orthotic, we have re-patterned the arch, but you do not possess the motor control to own that new arch, the orthotic does.
  • Now we can progress to one day a week training in a minimalist shoe like the Vibram Fiver Finger.
  • Jumping rope will foster correct posture and gluteal activation and hip extension, as opposed to running on treadmill which is hip flexion dominant.
  • Calf muscles will hurt due to intrinsic activation from jumping rope and wearing a minimalist shoe.  After one month, you can progress to twice a week barefoot training.

Bottom line is barefoot running does result in a shorter stride and cause runners to land on the mid foot/ball of foot which is preferred to heel striking for more efficient running.  The problem with making the change from running shoes to minimalist shoes like the Vibram or even barefoot entirely, is that most runners will need to progressively transition to less shoe over time and maybe eventually barefoot.  There are many runners who have foot types that are too rigid and high arched, or even too flexible to be able to safely barefoot run.  Having your foot type and biomechanics evaluated by a sports medicine professional is recommended before attempting to go barefoot. Here are some basic guidelines if you are interested in barefoot running or just want to get into wearing a minimalist shoe during exercise or walking:

  • Start with walking 1-2 times per week for 30 minutes and then gradually progress to running(see the protocol above).
  • Start with short tempo runs.  Do not go out and run a 5K the first time you wear a minimalist shoe or go barefoot.
  • Stop barefoot running or training at the first site of pain, and consult your physician.

Some Key Points Concerning the Minimalist Shoe or Barefoot Runner

  • Foot biomechanics can vary among individuals causing a need for different shoes for different foot types. Runners need one of three basic shoe types-neutral, stability, or motion control.
  • The human foot can be best described as a mobile adaptor. The foot is rigid at heel strike, then becomes flexible through midstance, and becomes rigid again at toe off. Running mechanics whereby the runner lands midfoot can slightly change biomechanics of pronation, supination, inversion and eversion, but the foot still must be a “mobile adaptor”, adapting to ground reaction forces.
  • Our feet are designed to traverse the natural varying terrain of the earth, which places three dimensional forces into the foot, and subsequently into the body. The foot is designed to continually adapt to the ground surface.
  • The earth gives natural shock absorption in a natural setting.
  • Manmade surfaces like roads and sidewalks, boardwalks etc. are relatively flat and two dimensional. Thus the combination of two dimensional road surface and the enclosing shoe somewhat limits the mobility of the foot.
  • Any covering on the foot will alter the foots natural biomechanics. Shoes like the MTB rocker restrict the biomechanics to a relatively sagittal plane(front to back) and eliminate a lot of the three dimensional forces the foot is designed to utilize.
  • Much research has been done in the field of foot biomechanics and shoe design over the past decade.
  • Newton’s Action/Reaction technology helps assist runners to utilize a mid foot or forefoot strike and the lugs on the sole of the shoe help to store potential energy at foot strike. These lugs spring back assisting in lift off during toe off.
  • Most runners would be better suited to use the minimalist shoe on a limited or part time basis as part of their training regimen.
  • Despite many advances in sports medicine and performance, like corrective exercise, kinesiotape and orthotics, runners and walkers continue to sustain injuries at an escalating rate.
  • Injuries such as plantar fasciitis, runners knee, shin splints, stress fractures, neuromas etc. are often due to faulty biomechanics, overtraining/ overuse, and improper footwear.
  • A strong core with good hip strength and mobility, along with proper foot biomechanics are essential to injury free optimal sports performance.
  • Stretching is vital to maintain good flexibility of soft tissues to allow for proper joint motion, and better contraction capability for force production.
  • Yoga, foam roller use, stretching, and chiropractic manipulation are essential elements to staying healthy.