Barefoot Running


Barefoot running is a wonderful way to improve your running form, foot strength, efficiency and speed. However, you need to temper your barefoot running aspirations with realistic training goals and expectations.


Faster runners, for the most part, land toward the front of their foot instead of on their heel – it is the natural pattern or most efficient movement pattern for faster running. Landing on the forefoot or midfoot position prepares you for immediate propulsion as your center of gravity moves forward of your foot.


If your athletic ability and goals are such that running faster than a 10-minute mile is realistic then it is definitely worth spending some time transitioning to becoming more of a forefoot or midfoot runner. Barefoot running is a great way to get the feel for this faster style of running because without shoes on you will naturally contact towards the front of your foot.


In contrast, walking is almost always heel strike first (yes, even barefoot). Your foot then accomodates to the surface of the ground and lastly your foot becomes rigid again as you propel off of your forefoot. This is the most natural, efficient movement pattern for slower speeds.


In many ways, jogging is like fast walking, where a heel strike is the natural pattern. Running shoes dampen some of the impact associated with heel strike. This was a key finding in the recent Harvard study published by Dr. Leiberman in the journal Nature that advocates barefoot running. So, if you do'nt have the desire or athletic ability to move beyond jogging (which is perfectly acceptable) you should stick with your heel striking approach. Barefoot running on a grass field or a rubberized track could still be used as a way to strengthen the muscles in your feet.


Some people have advocated barefoot running as the cure for running injuries. I certainly agree that barefoot running is an excellent way to strengthen the foot muscles, which may loose strength and fitness as they are constantly cradled in shoes and orthotics. However, there is not sufficient research to say that heel strikers, forefoot strikers or bare foot runners have fewer injuries.


The most recent publication of Dr. Leiberman’s demonstrates that the impact forces with heel striking while wearing shoes, heel striking without shoes and forefoot running without shoes all have the same peak force (2.4x body weight). There is a quicker initial force with heel striking but there is absolutely no evidence that this relates to injury. Forefoot and barefoot runners get injured just like heel strikers do. The injury locations may be different but they do get injured.


We read in awe about the legendary indigenous barefoot runners who glide over rocky terrain like gazelles and have visions of effortlessly gliding over the landscape in similar fashion. However, you have to remember that they have been running like that since they were two years old – and even most of them have opted for some type of cushioning.


So, before prancing off barefoot give your feet some good preparation time. Start by walking barefoot for 400m, and then build your foot strength up with jump rope training. I encourage runners to be able to jump rope on one foot at least 50 times before trying barefoot or forefoot running. When you meet this strength level, experiment with running barefoot on a grass field or running track. 50 meters repeated 5 times is a good starting point. You need to be very gradual when transitioning to forefoot or barefoot running.


As you experiment with barefoot running you will notice a distinct increase in the strength of your foot as well as an awareness of your running posture and form. Barefoot running will help you fine-tune your running form and reach a higher level of efficiency, which translates into faster running.


What is the best type of shoe to wear? Joggers, or heel strikers, should definitely use a high quality motion control running shoe. Forefoot runners may prefer a lower heeled shoe (this helps avoid heel strike without forcing you to run too much on your toes). Lower heeled shoes are usually either a cushioning type shoe or racing flats. Vibram Five Fingers are a barefooter’s novelty. If you have the passion to enjoy a barefoot run over rougher terrain these will add a little comfort to the experience but be aware, it does take quite a bit of getting used to.


Happy Running


Bryan Whitesides MPT, OCS

Physical Therapist

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